No team believed Mike Hull was worthy of selecting in the 2015 NFL Draft. Over the next two weeks, the Dolphins will determine if he’s worthy of replacing injured Raekwon McMillan as their starting middle linebacker.
Hull, as expected, was inserted with the starters at Saturday’s practice, flanked by Lawrence Timmons and Kiko Alonso when Miami was in base defense.
He will have the first shot to win the job in the wake of McMillan’s season-ending knee injury.
“It’s a great opportunity,” Hull said Saturday, adding that “you hate for something to happen like that to one of your teammates.”
But the Dolphins will continue to monitor available veteran linebackers over the next few weeks, according to a source, and would be open to adding a player via trade or free agency if they conclude they need to find someone better than Hull or if they’re not comfortable with their depth.
“With that crew that we’ve got right now, I like those three guys together and we’ll see how it plays out,” coach Adam Gase said of Alonso, Timmons and Hull.
Gase said there could be discussions about moving the linebackers around but “right now, we like where we’re at.”
When players have been injured, “[Hull is] always looking for that shot to jump into the starting lineup,” Gase said. “When we had guys go down and he had to fill in, he did a great job. He's always ready to go.”
That third linebacker, whether it’s Hull or a player yet to be added, is expected to be on the field less than the half the time because the Dolphins, more often than not, will be in nickel defense, with only two linebackers on the field. And those linebackers will be Alonso and Timmons, barring an injury.
Gase said McMillan, if he hadn’t been injured, likely would have played only about 300 snaps on defense this season, or about 19 per game. Gase made that point in justifying why McMillan was playing special teams, which is common for rookies. McMillan was injured on a Dolphins’ punt to Atlanta in Thursday’s preseason opener, before he played a single defensive snap.
Gase said McMillan was going to play special teams this season. “It’s unfortunate,” Gase said of McMillan’s torn ACL. “We had a lot of high hopes for him. We felt like we drafted a really good player. If we throw him in a real game [on special teams without preseason experience], it’s not going to be a good result.”
Despite leading the Big 10 in tackles (140) as a senior at Penn State, Hull wasn’t drafted largely because many NFL evaluators believed he was too short (6-0) and light (232 pounds).
But then-Dolphins linebackers coach Mark Duffner was intrigued and spoke to Hull every day for two weeks before the draft, hoping to set the groundwork for Miami signing Hull after the draft.
The Dolphins immediately offered him a deal when the draft ended, and Hull has stuck around for two years, appearing in three games as a rookie and all 16 last season.
He started one game in Alonso’s absence last season – he had an interception and eight tackles in that game against Arizona – and he said that experience his growth immeasurably.
Hull said Saturday he’s still fueled “every day” by the underdog-type perception of him. “That's always on my mind,” he said. “It's a chip on my shoulder every day. I'm out here working to prove everybody wrong.”
Hull’s strengths? “Quick in the box, good in the box, feel I have a good nose for the football against the run,” he said. “I definitely got better from whenever I came into the league.”
He spent the offseason working out with NFL linebackers Sean Lee and Paul Posluszny.
“He’s a smart kid who knows how to retain the information and it’s not too big for him,” linebackers coach Frank Bush said recently. “We do put a lot on him in the sense of asking him to learn all three positions.”
Hull will call the defensive signals when he’s in the game. “I called signals the last couple years; it's something I want to keep rolling with.”
Instead of adding a veteran linebacker, the Dolphins on Saturday signed former South Broward High linebacker Junior Sylvestre, who went undrafted out of Toledo in 2016 and spent training camp with the Colts last summer and some time with Buffalo earlier this offseason.
Besides Alonso, Timmons, Hull, injured McMillan and Sylvestre, the other linebackers under contract are Neville Hewitt, Deon Lacy, Trevor Reilly, Brandon Watts and Chase Allen.
Hewitt, who is expected to be on the team health permitting, has been sidelined with a shoulder injury. Reilly impressed the Dolphins in Thursday’s game.