Nate Garner hit his growth spurt in middle school. At 6-4 and 280 pounds, he towered over the rest of the kids in the eighth grade.
But when it comes to his professional career, Garner looks to be a late bloomer.
Now in his fifth NFL season, Garner might be playing the best football of his career. Since sliding into the starting lineup after Jake Long’s season-ending triceps injury, Garner has been not just a solid option at right tackle, but a dependable one as well.
Garner — who can play every position on the offensive line — hasn’t allowed a sack in 104 passing plays over the past three weeks. Perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not, the Dolphins have run the ball as well as they have all season when Garner has been on the field. In the three games he has started, they have averaged 152 yards per game on the ground — 44 more than in the 12 games he did not.
So what has been the secret to his success?
“Probably having confidence in myself,” Garner said. “Coach [Jim] Turner has helped a lot with that.
“You don’t feel scared to mess up, so you just go out there and just play hard. Sometimes you get in your own head, ‘Oh, I don’t want to mess up that play.’ He’s helped take that away.”
Garner’s emergence — along with improved play by Jonathan Martin at left tackle — presents some intrigue entering the offseason. Both Garner and Long are pending free agents. To be sure, the former would be far cheaper to bring back than the latter.
“I‘d love to be here,” Garner said. “I don’t think it’s the offseason that’s the big thing. I think it’s what happens during the season that’s the big thing. Getting the opportunity has helped a lot. We’ll see what happens.”
Linebacker Koa Misi practiced for the first time Thursday since sustaining a high ankle sprain late against the 49ers on Dec. 9.
He worked on a limited basis Thursday and wouldn’t rule out playing Sunday in New England.
“It’s not any fun just sitting on the sidelines, doing nothing, but I don’t know,” Misi said.
While Misi showed encouraging signs, Davone Bess appeared no closer to returning from a back injury that cost him the past two games. Bess didn’t practice. Neither did Randy Starks, whose mother’s funeral was Wednesday in Virginia.
The Dolphins secondary remains muddled.
Each of their starting defensive backs — Nolan Carroll (knee), Chris Clemons (ankle), Reshad Jones (hip) and Sean Smith (knee) — was limited in participation. Backup center Josh Samuda (shoulder) also missed parts of practice, while Armon Binns (groin), Karlos Dansby (biceps) and Brian Hartline (back) all worked fully.
Brandon Fields leads the AFC in punting average, but wasn’t picked for the Pro Bowl (although he is the conference’s first alternate). When asked how accurately players and fans can evaluate specialists, he chuckled.
“Punters and kickers know about punters and kickers,” Fields said. “Other than that, probably not many other people.
“I definitely thought that I had a Pro Bowl-caliber season. If you look at my numbers, that will justify that.”