With starter Dannell Ellerbe not participating in practice all week due to a shoulder injury, rookie linebacker Jelani Jenkins should play an increased role Sunday against the Bills.
But even before Ellerbe was on the mend, the Dolphins coaching staff was gradually trusting Jenkins more and rewarding the former Gator with more time on the field.
“I think he’s developing very well. He’s an intelligent guy,” said coach Joe Philbin. “We thought when he was coming out [of college] he showed some versatility that he could play well against the run and defend the pass as well. We like his all-around skill set.”
Although Jenkins has been a core special teams contributor all year, he had been on the field for just three defensive snaps in Miami’s first two games. In the past three games, however, he’s played 38 plays, including a season-high 18 against Baltimore, when Ellerbe left with a shoulder injury.
Jenkins said he’s excited about being on the field more and views his gradual incorporation into the defense as a good opportunity to improve on special teams and gain confidence.
“There’s a lot of carry over, technique-wise,” said the fourth-round pick. “Good football position, stuff like that, they’re little things that help out as a linebacker on special teams, so it’s carried over a lot. It’s helped me adjust to the speed and the atmosphere.”
Although Jenkins was a coveted recruit out of the Washington D.C. area — ranked as the best linebacker and 10th-best overall player in 2009 by Rivals — when he left Gainesville, scouts had concerns about his ability to defend the run.
At just 243 pounds, Jenkins’ sideline-to-sideline speed does little to help him when offensive linemen get their hands on him. Although he said he’s improved quite a bit at shedding blocks since joining the Dolphins, he might be used most effectively in the short term is in pass coverage.
“I would say one of my strengths is coverage,” Jenkins said. “I take pride in making sure my guy doesn’t catch the ball.”
If Ellerbe is unable to play Sunday, his role may be split in two. Veteran Jason Trusnik will likely start in his place and play on first and second downs. In passing situations, however, Jenkins will likely be on the field with Philip Wheeler as part of the Dolphins’ nickel package.
Both Jenkins and Trusnik have been special teams cornerstones, and no one has played more special teams snaps the last two games than the two versatile linebackers.
Philbin said that although playing special teams is different than lining up on defense, he and his staff will use special teams performance as part of their evaluation for filling Ellerbe’s role on defense if he can’t play.
“You are looking for playmakers,” Philbin said. “Whether it be a coverage tackle or if they make the correct block or if they hold up their man on the punt return, you’re looking for when they have their opportunities to do their job, they are doing it consistently.”
Jenkins is tied for the team lead in special teams tackles with fellow rookie Don Jones.
On the defensive side, Jenkins said he’s learned a lot from Ellerbe about how to prepare for offenses and how to diagnose plays. He also said he’s had to learn how to trust that preparation and not let bad plays affect what he’s seeing on the field.
“I honestly tend to be a perfectionist, so if a play doesn’t go exactly how I planned it, I tend to think about what I did wrong,” Jenkins said. “Those are things you want to think about after the game, but you don’t want to take it on to the next play All those anxious and negative thoughts you had might end up happening because you’re not playing well.”