At the end of the 2017 season the big names on the Miami Dolphins' defensive line — Cameron Wake, Ndamukong Suh among them — admitted they were stumped why a unit with so much apparent talent had fallen so short of expectations they had set.
The unit was supposed to be a Dolphins team strength. It wasn't. It was supposed to be a problem for quarterbacks. But Miami finished with 30 sacks, which was only 26th in the NFL.
The Dolphins' defensive line was supposed to plug the run, especially with Suh clogging the middle, but the run defense yielded 4.1 yards per attempt (17th in the NFL) and 110.5 rush yards per game (14th in the NFL).
Definitely not great. Indeed, barely even acceptable.
This offseason's moves have spoken to the reasons the Dolphins felt the defensive line underperformed:
Suh was cut.
Robert Quinn was added in a trade.
And while those two transactions involving big-name players promised the biggest change, it was the least-publicized change that might determine the direction of the 2018 Dolphins defensive line:
The Dolphins did not retain defensive line coach Terrell Williams — and hired 39-year-old Kris Kocurek to replace him.
And while Williams was a professional who didn't scream a lot and rarely lost his temper and was calm and unruffled, Kocurek is not wired exactly like that.
Kocurek, who played two NFL seasons after being a seventh-round pick in Seattle, got his first taste of football in middle school. And this is how Kocurek played in middle school:
"[I] hit the field with my hair on fire," he said Wednesday.
In middle school.
And this is how Kocurek wants the Miami defensive lineman to approach practices and games this year:
"All I know is we're going to show up every day. We're going to put our hand on the door and try to get better that day," Kocurek said. "We're going to work as hard as we possibly can to make sure we improve to get our defensive line playing the way our coaching staff envisions our front playing — fast, physical, aggressive, and with extreme effort.
"I don't care about big names, small names, big school guys, small school guys. We're here to work and get better. Hard work is going to equal success. I've always believed that. We're going to be the hardest-working group on the field and go at it as hard as we can every day."
Ask players and others within the Dolphins' organization the difference between Williams and Kocurek and Jordan Phillips talks about there being a "culture change" in the defensive line meeting room.
I'm told Kocurek is not going to rely on his players being self-starters like Williams sometimes did. He's going to make it his personal mission to light them up if he has to.
And while Kocurek is apparently going to be more aggressive in his approach to his job, the Dolphins are going to take a different approach to their defensive line play this season on multiple fronts.
The first thing is the Dolphins want their linemen to attack more. That's interesting because I thought that was the intent all along.
The second thing is the Dolphins want to borrow from the Jacksonville Jaguars' philosophy of rolling linemen in and out in waves — hoping that fresh backups getting important snaps is better than starters getting extended playing time, even when they might be winded.
"All I know is we're looking for eight, nine, 10 guys and we're going to roll guys through games," Kocurek said. " We want to keep our guys fresh throughout four quarters and we want to keep our guys fresh through 16 games. So we're going to wave them in and hopefully develop eight to 10 guys to roll through games and keep snap counts down as much as we can so we can go as fast as we can for a long as we can."
What will that look like come the regular season?
The Dolphins, who had Suh take more than 80 percent of the snaps at one defensive spot the past three seasons, expect to roll Davon Godchaux, Jordan Phillips, Akeem Spence and probably one other defensive tackle — into games. In an 70-play game for the defense, the Miami defensive tackles might play perhaps 15-25 plays each depending on how often the opposition is passing the ball.
The Dolphins will also be asking five or six defensive ends to shuttle in and out as the downs, distance and endurance dictate. That means Wake, Quinn, Charles Harris, William Hayes, Andre Branch or some surprise player on the depth chart will get 20-plus plays per game in a rotation.
"For us now, it’s all about roles and understanding that we want to be fresh, and if you get tired then come out, and not having to force reps when you’re dog tired," Branch said. "For us, it’s just always being fresh and playing fast.”
The number of snaps isn't yet set for each player. It's still May, people.
The rotation isn't set, either, although Hayes, perhaps the team's best run-stopping edge player, might factor as a tackle instead of an end.
The point is the Dolphins aren't likely to be asking 36-year-old Wake to play 60 snaps in a game. And if they need to, something went wrong with the initial plan.
Something was amiss during practice Wednesday. Harris, nursing a minor shoulder injury, did not take any repetitions in team drills. So that was one fewer body in the rotation.
Harris, a first-round pick in 2017, is expected to take a significant leap from last year when he had 20 total tackles, including two sacks, in 16 games.
What does Harris need to improve to make a jump from those modest statistics?
"Consistency down in and down out ...," Kocurek said. "We can live with the mistakes when he's playing fast. We want to take the guesswork out of things to have him go as fast as he can go and that should lead to production."
It sounds like Kocurek wants more urgency out of the defensive line. That's good because last season's group seemed to lack some of that for whatever reasons.
"So far I like the talent, but the talent has to work," Kocurek said. "And that's what these guys have been doing. So far they've bought in to the work ethic that we're looking for as a coaching staff. They show up every day prepared. We just have to make sure we get better one day at a time but the talent is there.
"So far so good."