When former linebackers coach George Edwards accepted the defensive coordinator position with the Minnesota Vikings, many wondered where the Dolphins would find his replacement, and how quickly they would be able to do so. It turns out we didn’t have to wait very long, as Miami moved quickly, adding former Jacksonville Jaguars linebackers coach Mark Duffner to the staff.
In a interview with the Finsiders, Duffner spoke about his connections to some of the Dolphins coaching staff, and what he hopes to accomplish with this young crop of linebackers. The longtime defensive coach goes back a long ways with several coaches on the Fins staff, most notably Head Coach Joe Philbin and defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle.
Duffner was the head coach at Division I-AA powerhouse Holy Cross during the university’s heyday in the late 1980s, compiling a 60-5-1 record from 1986-1991. His defensive coordinator at the time? Current Fins defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle, who together with Duffner led the one of the most successful defenses in all of college football during that time. They also coached together at the University of Maryland from 1994-1996.
Duffner’s experience coaching with Joe Philbin is less extensive, but they were on the same staff with the Green Bay Packers from 2003- 2005. Duffner said that he has tremendous respect for both men, and is excited to coach with them once again.
“All those guys I go back to some association or awareness of them, I go all the way back to really the late 1970s,” said Duffner. “I’ve seen them go to different places, and do a great job of coaching and a great job of developing players and units on offense and defense. To get an opportunity to work with them is real exciting.”
Duffner was supposed to be down with the Jacksonville Jaguars in Mobile, Alabama last week, as their staff was coaching the South Team in this year’s Senior Bowl. But as soon as the Dolphins hired him, he traveled back to Florida to get a jump on preparation for next season with the rest of the coaching staff. He already has his first objective in mind that he wants to get done before the players come back later this spring.
“Certainly one of the very first things will be to get the opportunity to study the current linebackers on the squad, and determine their strengths and weaknesses, and certainly try to improve the strengths of the players and also improve their weaknesses,” said Duffner. “I think that’s going to be the first order of business for me and the rest of that will all take form.”
The linebacker position in the National Football League has really undergone a cultural shift in recent years, as teams are looking at the position in a different way. The days of the big bad brutes stuffing the line every play are fading away due to the league’s pass happy ways. Now we’re seeing more and more speed based players at the position such as Patrick Willis and Luke Kuechly, guys who are much faster and better in pass coverage than their counterparts from just 10 years ago. Coaching the linebacker position in the NFL since 1997, Duffner has noticed this evolution, and has had to adapt his teachings to counter the new wave of spread offenses around the NFL.
“There’s so much spread and it’s become annually more and more a matchup game where you’ve got these tight ends now, former basketball players and excellent athletes, guys who can really run, trying to matchup with linebackers,” said Duffner. “It’s a speed game, and I think that trying to allow your players to be in position to be able to make plays speed vs. speed is a very important thing.”
“It’s an evolving speed game. I’m not sure that it’s going to continue that way in a lot of ways, but it’s certainly in that direction right now,” said Duffner.
A linebacker can have all the speed and power in the world, but Duffner believes that there’s one critical trait that makes a great linebacker, and that’s awareness. Being able to process your surroundings pre-snap and the instant the ball is snapped is imperative to play well at the position, and Duffner believes it’s a player’s most important attribute.
“There’s a lot of guys that can run, and they’re physical and that type of thing but I think especially at linebacker, awareness is a key thing. Your eyes have got to be in the right position, you’ve gotta know who can block you, and where they can block you from,” said Duffner. “It’s so movement related, and any tip that you can get to get yourself off the spot, and also get yourself in the right position in run or pass is critical.”
One of the best around at that was former Dolphins linebacker Zach Thomas. During his career, Thomas was able to overcome atypical linebacker size to become one of the best and smartest at his position in NFL history, and Duffner actually still uses tapes of the seven time Pro Bowler in his teachings.
“Zach Thomas, one of your former great players there, I’ve used film on him that I’ve saved for years and how that guy was so quick to get off the spot,” said Duffner. “He had anticipation and awareness that enhanced his ability to be a productive player.”
If Coach Duffner can get any of the current crop of Fins linebackers to play anywhere near the level that Thomas did, we could be in for quite a renaissance at the position down in Miami.
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