Matt Burke, flanked by a very special guest, called rookie linebacker Raekwon McMillan over for a quick chat after practice Tuesday.
“Did you learn anything today?” Burke asked McMillan.
Sure did, the Dolphins’ second-round pick replied.
Burke would expect nothing less. McMillan has been a sponge throughout his four-month NFL career, and no one had to tell him that when one of the best linebackers in Dolphins history speaks, you listen.
Zach Thomas was that very special guest at practice Tuesday, and not just to observe. He gave input where he saw fit — and McMillan apparently lapped it up.
McMillan has been the Dolphins’ most impressive rookie in training camp, and his mental game has been as strong as his physical game. The Dolphins gambled by making him their middle linebacker, and the play-calling responsibility that comes with it. Burke, the Dolphins’ defensive coordinator, radios each call into McMillan’s headset. The responsibility to get his older teammates lined up and ready hasn’t been too big for the rook, who still can’t legally buy a drink.
McMillan doesn’t turn 21 until November, making him the youngest Dolphins player — and the second-youngest player in the entire NFL. (Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster was born five days after McMillan.)
But that hasn’t stopped Burke from deputizing McMillan as a lieutenant coach on the field.
“He’s done a good job,” Burke said last week. “…What we wanted him to do in terms of taking charge of the huddle leading the group. That position has to make a lot of calls and where he’s been playing, so he’s done a good job and the same thing, so we’re trying to get him work with that first group and against better competition and see how he responds. He’s been good so far.”
But that’s been in practice. How about a live-action game?
We’ll find out Thursday night when the host Dolphins make their preseason debut against the Falcons (7 p.m., CBS4).
All exhibition games are about finding out what a team has in its younger players, but Thursday will probably take that ethos to an extreme.
Any paying customer expecting to see much, if anything, out of the Dolphins’ stars Thursday will leave disappointed. While Adam Gase was coy about his plans, new quarterback Jay Cutler has already been ruled out. Mike Pouncey, Laremy Tunsil and Jay Ajayi will all probably get the night off, too.
Meanwhile, the rookies will play. A lot. McMillan will start. First-round pick Charles Harris could, too. Fifth-rounder Davon Godchaux has been running with the ones for the past week, and there’s no reason to believe that will change Thursday.
“Just keep getting better every day, that’s it,” Gase will tell those young players, if he hasn’t already. “Pay attention to every little detail we’re doing and keep pushing guys to get better. Don’t get complacent.”
Harris, the first-year defensive end, has flashed in stretches during training camp but hasn’t yet matched the consistent excellence he showed in the spring.
He should have plenty of chances to impress Thursday, as veterans Cameron Wake, Andre Branch and William Hayes likely won’t play much — if at all.
As for Godchaux? The preseason opener will be his best opportunity yet to prove he’s the real deal. The rookie defensive tackle has been the most pleasant surprise of camp and is now getting reps ahead of third-year Jordan Phillips.
Gase last week said Godchaux is starting because he’s been practicing better than Phillips, who, three years into the league, still has yet to realize his great potential.
However, coaches aren’t down on Phillips but rather have needed to give Godchaux reps against starting offensive linemen in practice to figure out what exactly they have in him.
“[Godchaux is] a competitor playing as hard as you want a guy to play,” Gase said recently. “He gets after it every day and never slows down. … I like what he’s doing, like the way he’s playing. He keeps getting better.”