Armando Salguero

Surprise: Miami Dolphins running back job is a competition not a coronation

Dolphins running back coach Eric Studesville and Dolphins running back Kenyan Drake joke around after OTA practice.
Dolphins running back coach Eric Studesville and Dolphins running back Kenyan Drake joke around after OTA practice. dvarela@miamiherald.com

The expectation is that when the Miami Dolphins begin their 2018 season, Kenyan Drake will be allowed to pick up where he left off a year ago — as the starting running back, getting a majority of the snaps and the carries.

Except ...

The Dolphins haven't said that publicly.

They've obviously thought about it. They've obviously planned for it because it still might happen. But cast that plan to concrete certainty?

“We don’t know that yet," running backs coach Eric Studesville said this week. "I think that’s going to play out over time. What we’re going to do is we’re going to get everybody ready. We’ve got to learn the offense. We’re still in the playbook. We’re still in the installations.

"We’ve got to get everybody up to speed to where they all know it, we’re all confident in our assignments and then let them go play. And they’re going to sort out what those roles are as we go. I don’t think we have that set right now. We just have to wait and see how it goes.”

The truth is Drake might be the starter.

Or Frank Gore might be the starter.

Drake might get most of the carries. Or Gore might get most of the carries. Or the two will share the carries in an almost equal distribution of work.

The Dolphins will determine the roles in training camp during what will be more a competition than coronation.

And, here's the lightly considered thing: The Dolphins really, really like rookie Kalen Ballage so far. No, he's not ready to push the incumbent Drake or possible future Hall of Famer Gore aside.

But people within the organization have been whispering that he might be a significant factor before the 2018 season is over.

"The guy that gives us the best chance to win, that gives the Miami Dolphins the best chance to win," Studesville said, "that’s who’s got to be the guy who’s out there for us and helping us win football games.”

(This is where I typically interrupt and dismiss the coach-speak and then lay out the actual plan for you because I don't trade in winks and nods or coaching psychology).

But this time the idea that the Dolphins have a set backfield rotation with assigned roles for the starter and backup is truly not based in fact.

What you've read previously is what everyone thinks the roles will be. But the folks within the Dolphins organization, specifically the coaching staff, are going to allow themselves the luxury of not guessing and letting the talent decide the issue.

And that's where we have the possibility that maybe Gore gets more carries. And maybe Ballage becomes a factor if he grows up quickly.

Drake, you'll recall, finished strong last season — except for being ejected in the season finale, but that's another story. Drake ended the season with 644 rushing yards and averaged 4.8 yards per carry. He was the league's leading rusher the final five games of the year.

Gore, meanwhile, averaged 3.7 yards per carry in Indianapolis as he gained 961 yards on 261 carries.

So it's logical that someone asked Drake, a backup to departed Jay Ajayi the past two seasons, how he feels being "the guy" now.

"I feel like now that I have a lot more experience in the offense in general, it gives me the ability to, obviously, know what I need to know from a simplicity standpoint but then also be able to focus on, ‘Alright now that I know what I have to do, now what is the line doing? Now what is the quarterback thinking on this play? How is the rotation of the safeties going to affect my run, how the line is going to run-fit, how the linebackers fit in this A gap or where is the three technique or the soft shade or whatever," Drake said.

"I feel like my whole entire maturation process being in this offense, being in this league for two years now going on three, my approach to this year has just been, ‘Now, what else? How else can I expand my horizons?"

Good answer. But notice what Drake didn't say?

He didn't agree that he's "the guy."

At age 35, Gore's probably not the same player he was at 25. But even as he's serving as something of a role model for the younger Miami running backs and helping them improve, he has no intention of deferring to them on the field.

If someone wants more carries than Frank Gore, they're going to have to earn them. And Gore will be fine with that, but he's going to try to get his also.

"We have a great young back in ‘K.D.’ [Drake], who I think has special talent," Gore said. "He can run and catch the ball. I’m just going to come in here every day, especially during training camp, and just try to be me and compete. Whatever my coaches want me to do, I’ll do.”

And then Gore smiles when I press him about trying to be the starter.

“We’ll see," he said. "Like I said, we have a young back who’s very talented. I’m going to come in every day and we’re going to try to get each other better in that room. Whatever coach wants us to do, we’ll do.”

Let the competition begin.

Follow Armando Salguero on Twitter: @ArmandoSalguero
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