Miami Dolphins replace struggling Shelley Smith at first-team center

07/30/2014 6:16 PM

07/31/2014 6:34 PM

The Dolphins shook up their first-team offensive line during Wednesday’s practice after two more botched snaps from center Shelley Smith, giving him four over the past two days.

During the later stages of team drills, Nate Garner replaced Smith with the first team at center, while rookie third-round pick Billy Turner replaced Dallas Thomas with the starters at right guard.

Meanwhile, Thomas got some work at right tackle, a position he played at times in practice last season.

Branden Albert is set at left tackle, and Daryn Colledge (left guard) and Ja’Wuan James (right tackle) are likely starters.

But the two other positions have proved to be problematic in light of Mike Pouncey’s hip surgery, which will force him to miss a chunk of the season.

Smith, who has never played center in an NFL game, has mishandled at least six snaps in five training-camp practices. He lost his spot with the first team Wednesday after a low snap resulted in a fumble that was recovered by Isaaka Aaitui.

Smith said he wasn’t surprised he was replaced by Garner, who started two games at center last season and 19 games at various positions in his five seasons. Smith had been Miami’s first-team right guard during offseason practices before Pouncey’s injury.

The Dolphins’ depth at center remains limited. Sam Brenner, who filled in for Pouncey at center during a practice in late June, missed practice Wednesday with an ankle injury. The Dolphins hope he can return in a few days. Free agent Samson Satele, who auditioned for the Dolphins on June 30, remains on Miami’s radar.

As for Thomas, coach Joe Philbin said in March that it was important to determine his best position and leave him there. That still hasn’t happened.

“We’ll see if he looks that much more comfortable [at tackle],” Philbin said. “I doubt that will be the case, but it could be. I told the staff I want to see some guys in some different spots.”

Return game

Rookie receiver Jarvis Landry and former Titans receiver Damian Williams are incumbent Marcus Thigpen’s top challengers for the punt- and kickoff-return jobs. A few rookies besides Landry are also in the mix, including former Oklahoma running back Damien Williams.

“We put a depth chart up. Is [Thigpen] number one? Yes, because he has the most experience,” special teams coordinator Darren Rizzi said. “We will have other guys do it. We have a lot of options, a lot of competition. We have some insurance policies like Brent Grimes.”

In his second year as the Dolphins’ primary returner, Thigpen slipped to 19th in punt returns last season (7.8 average) and 18th in kickoff returns (22.5).

“We’ve got to get better in the return game as a whole. All 11 guys, not just the returner,” Rizzi said. “There were a lot of situations where our blocking could have been better. We got to get back to where we were in 2012, when we were top five in both categories.”

The Dolphins are eager to see Landry return punts and kickoffs in preseason games.

“Obviously, the guy has good hands,” Rizzi said. “He has good judgment, very good athletic ability. The question of whether he can do it in game time is going to be the biggest thing. He’s going to have some opportunities for sure [in preseason games]. He didn’t do it a lot in college [at LSU]. They had Odell Beckham doing it.”

This and that

• The Dolphins decided not to bring in another kicker to compete with Caleb Sturgis even though his 76.5 percent accuracy (26 of 34) on field goals ranked 29th of 32 kickers.

“He’s got to get more consistent,” Rizzi said. “He had that lapse in the middle of the year where he had a 1-for-5 spell. A kicker can’t be on a roller-coaster ride.”

Sturgis was 8 for 10 from 40 to 49 yards but just 3 for 7 on field goals of 50-plus yards.

• Defensive end Cameron Wake was among several Dolphins who were wearing a T-shirt with slogans that were selected by the players. Among them: “I am a warrior and member of an unbeatable team.” “I will always place the team first.” “I will never quit.” “I am a professional.” “I am a Miami Dolphin.”

Philbin said the idea was hatched during his meetings with players.

“The great teams I’ve been around, the players take control of them,” Philbin said. “The best thing is to give them some ownership. They did a good job.”

The T-shirt is not being sold to the public.

• Besides Brenner, Pouncey and Knowshon Moreno, Mike Wallace (hamstring) also missed practice Wednesday.

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