Miami Dolphins

Dolphins’ Earl Mitchell channels ‘The Refrigerator’

Dolphins defensive lineman Earl Mitchell worked with the offense Sunday as a fullback and caught two passes in the flat during drills.
Dolphins defensive lineman Earl Mitchell worked with the offense Sunday as a fullback and caught two passes in the flat during drills. For the Miami Herald

How’s this for a terrorizing thought:

You’re a 180-pound cornerback, and you see 310-pound Earl Mitchell catch the ball in the flat, turn upfield and pick up a head of steam right as he sprints toward you.

This fall, that nightmare scenario could be a reality for some poor defensive back. Mitchell might get asked to channel “The Refrigerator.”

Three decades after William “The Refrigerator’ Perry became the most peculiar two-way player in NFL history for the Chicago Bears, Mitchell could be called upon to do the same. The veteran defensive tackle lined up at fullback Sunday, catching two passes in the flat.

“In this game, you’re either the hammer or the nail,” Mitchell said after practice. “I always feel like I want to be the hammer.”

At the University of Arizona, he was a sledgehammer. Mitchell played in the backfield and on special teams his first two years in Tucson. His ferocious, open-field hits were the stuff of legends.

Eight years later, he might get a chance to do it again. The Dolphins don’t have a natural fullback, and have mulled using Mitchell as one on a part-time basis — particularly when they have the ball near the goal line (both their own and their opponent’s).

Both Mitchell and coach Joe Philbin were predictably tight-lipped about the possibility Sunday.

“A little levity,” Philbin said. “We’ll see if it’s utilized in a personnel level, but it’s Sunday in training camp and we’ve got nine days between [games] and every once in a while we’ll throw a pass to a defensive player. They get excited about it.”

But this is no stunt. The Dolphins have given Mitchell offensive reps since the spring, but only when practices were closed to the public and media.

They had surely hoped to keep the plan a secret. But by unleashing Mitchell on Sunday, the secret’s out.

“We have little jokes about it in the locker room,” cornerback Brent Grimes said. “We show people the highlight tapes that coach [Kevin] Coyle came up with of Earl playing at Arizona getting a couple of carries, catching some passes. So we knew he could do some things with the ball. Now he’s getting his chance.”

Mitchell caught 14 passes at Arizona. Two were for touchdowns.

Which raises the question: How would Mitchell celebrate if he scored in the NFL? No touchdown dance, Mitchell insisted. Not even a Gronk-like spike.

“I’m strictly business,” Mitchell said. “Straight to the ref. Act like I’ve been there before.”

That fits Mitchell’s no-frills approach to the game. If the Dolphins’ loaded defensive line was the Beatles, Mitchell would be George Harrison. He’s the quiet one.

With Cameron Wake and Ndamukong Suh to his left and Olivier Vernon to his right, Mitchell often gets overlooked.

And that suits him just fine.

“I’m not in this game to win popularity contests,” said Mitchell, who had two sacks and eight tackles for loss in 2014. “When you ask my teammates, they’re going to let you know I’m out here working, and I’m trying to make an impact just as much as they are.

“They made great names for themselves and I’m just trying to fight to make the plays that I can make while I’m out there.”

He should have plenty of opportunities. In last week’s game against the Bears, Chicago double-teamed Suh every play. Mitchell will likely see one-on-ones the entire coming season.

And unlike his star teammates, Mitchell might have a chance to impact the game in multiple ways.

“It’s like riding a bike,” Mitchell said. “I’ve played offense before. Football’s football.”

And in football, the bigger guy usually runs over the smaller guy. Cornerbacks of the AFC East, consider yourselves warned.

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