Growing up in Utah, Zach Vigil remembers hearing the name of another Zach — former Dolphins star Zach Thomas — and thinking, “That guy is pretty cool.”
Now, years later, Vigil hopes to follow in Thomas’ footsteps — as an unheralded middle linebacker who was sold short by NFL teams in the draft.
Vigil is the most improbable of a handful of young Dolphins defensive players who are receiving meaningful opportunities early in the season.
There’s second-round pick Jordan Phillips, who had Miami’s only sack Sunday. There’s second-year defensive end Terrence Fede, who filled in for injured Olivier Vernon against the Redskins and produced the most tackles of any Miami defensive lineman (six) in 38 snaps.
And there’s Walt Aikens, who has competently handled a starting safety job since a torn ACL ended Louis Delmas’ season in mid-August.
But Vigil’s rise is the most surprising, because he wasn’t drafted out of Utah State. He didn’t even bother watching the last day of the draft, instead spending the time with the family’s 14 horses that are used to help the Vigils hunt elk and deer.
He said several teams inquired about him after the draft, but he preferred Miami because defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle and linebackers coach Mark Duffner “took the initiative to reach out to me before the draft.”
Coyle, who split middle linebacker snaps evenly between Kelvin Sheppard and Vigil in the opener, said Vigil first caught his eye “back in the spring. He led the nation in tackles in college, is an instinctive player. Sometimes you may not think he looks the part, but yet he finds the ball. He’s smart. He communicates well.”
Vigil was delighted recently to meet Thomas, who was a fifth-round pick in 1996 and was a first-team All-Pro five times.
When Thomas addressed the team last month, “I was pretty attentive,” Vigil said. “He’s somebody you can model after because he came in every day and did the work. That’s something I’ve always done my whole life.”
Vigil is accustomed to being overlooked. He didn’t have a single scholarship offer when he walked on at Utah State.
“The NFL, at the time, seemed improbable,” he said. “I just wanted to earn a scholarship so my parents wouldn’t have to pay.”
He finally got one after two years and received valuable mentoring from another Utah State alum, Bobby Wagner, who was a first-team All-Pro linebacker for the Seattle Seahawks last season.
“The big thing about Zach is his confidence,” linebacker Jelani Jenkins said. “He finds the ball. He gets off blocks. That’s why we like him.”
Vigil isn’t the only NFL neophyte getting a chance to play on Miami’s defense.
Phillips, who said he “could have played better” in 11 snaps in the opener, has displayed a more consistent motor since leaving Oklahoma and coming to the Dolphins.
“There were too many people saying I was lazy, so I said I’ve got to fix it,” he said. “I don’t think my effort is in question anymore.”
Veteran defensive tackle C.J. Mosley, paired with Phillips on the second team, said: “He has all the tools. He still has to learn the game. It’s going to take time. I’m trying to help him.”
As for Aikens, the 2014 fourth-round pick out of Liberty has improved in his second season, especially in maturity and attention to detail.
“He’s night and day from last year to this year,” Dolphins safety Michael Thomas said. “He’s taking his job seriously. He’s being a pro this year. I’m proud of him. He’s a big, athletic skill player, fast, physical — the type of presence you need in the backfield.”
Aikens said he quizzes himself on defensive calls “just to stay on top of the defense. My football IQ has [improved]. When you understand the game more, you can play faster and use your athleticism.”
Coyle said Aikens’ first NFL start was “solid. … [He] showed some good range in the back end and played with some poise.”
But coach Joe Philbin wants to see improved tackling from Aikens: “He’s made some in games, missed a couple in games. His recognition and play speed can increase a little bit. That will come.”