Barry Jackson

The most surprising thing said by a Dolphins coach this weekend

Dolphins special teams coordinator Darren Rizzi on Saturday offered a well-reasoned explanation for a surprising statement.
Dolphins special teams coordinator Darren Rizzi on Saturday offered a well-reasoned explanation for a surprising statement. AP

A six-pack of weekend Dolphins notes:

In evaluating whether a kicker is any good, the first thing fans usually look at is his accuracy rate on field goals.

That’s why it was surprising when respected Dolphins special teams coordinator Darren Rizzi said the following on Saturday after being asked why he liked Dolphins seventh-round rookie kicker Jason Sanders, who made only 25 of 35 field goals (71 percent) in his career at New Mexico:

“A lot of people don’t want to hear this, but really, when you look at a college placekicker, one of the last things I look at is field goal percentage, and there’s a reason for that,” Rizzi said.

“The reason for that is because a lot of times in college, the operations are [not consistently good]… It’s completely different than the NFL. I can sit here for hours and talk about the guys and give you examples. Stephen Gostkowski for the Patriots was a 76-percent field-goal kicker in college. Matt Bryant for the Falcons was a 72-percent field-goal kicker in college. Mason Crosby (was a) 74-percent kicker in college. Phil Dawson was a 74-percent kicker in college. Robbie Gould was a 63-percent kicker in college. Between those five guys, they have over 70 years of NFL experience.

“The point is the field goal percentage probably gets looked at a little bit too much. But in this day in age of fantasy football and numbers and everything, I get it.”

Though Sanders took accountability for his misses during a news conference Friday, Rizzi suggested that either the snap or ball placement wasn’t ideal on a lot of his college kicks. That’s one reason for his mediocre percentage.

“His operation wasn’t great,” Rizzi said. “I know he’s not going to stand here in front of you and tell you guys that. He’s going to put the blame on him; but his operation wasn’t great. I was really impressed with the talent, the person, and obviously we felt strong enough to draft him at that point. Even the other kicker that got drafted in the fifth round – (Minnesota fifth-rounder Daniel Carlson) – his senior year, he was below 80 percent [at Auburn]. You can see I did a little bit of homework on that, by the way.”

Bottom line, Rizzi said, is this: Sanders is “a guy that didn’t get a lot of opportunity in college. He’s a guy that only had 35 field-goal attempts because his head coach went for it a lot of times in the red zone. Bob Davie is an aggressive coach. They didn’t kick a lot of field goals. I think he had more long field goals than short field goals, because it seemed like every time they were close, they went for it.

“He obviously did a really good job on his PATs and his kickoffs. I feel like if he was a guy that was in a Power 5 conference, he would have been much more of a household name, if you will. He might have been a little bit higher up the draft board; but it worked out great for us.”

Former Florida Atlantic kicker Greg Joseph, who signed with Miami after the draft, said Rizzi told him that he would have a completely open competition with Sanders for the kicking job.

Joseph took the ride from Boca Raton to Jupiter several times this past spring to get pointers from Cody Parkey, who was the Dolphins’ kicker last season but signed with the Chicago Bears in March.

Parkey “helped me out with his form,” said Joseph, who was highly appreciative.

Joseph was 57 for 82 on field goals in his career (69.5 percent), including 15 for 21 (71.4 percent) last season.

Sanders and Joseph both have strong legs.

Is that the No. 1 attribute Rizzi looks for?

“I don’t know if it’s number one but it’s certainly up there… You want a guy that’s got an NFL-type leg and have the ability to give you a lot of different things and have great range. It’s probably easier to take a guy with great leg strength and get him a little bit more in tune or fixed or technique-wise on field goals than it is to go the other way. You can’t teach leg strength.”

New Dolphins offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains said the interior of the Dolphins line has significantly improved. Miami has gone from an interior starting group of guard Jermon Bushrod, center Mike Pouncey and some guard combination of Ted Larsen or Jesse Davis or Anthony Steen to guard Josh Sitton, center Daniel Kilgore and likely, Davis.

Pouncey is now with the Chargers and Bushrod with the Saints. Steen is looking for a team.

“Put [Sitton] with Daniel Kilgore and the interior offensive line has gotten a lot better,” Loggains said. “I’m not telling you guys anything you don’t know, but being able to protect from the inside out, that’s something [coach Adam] Gase really wanted to do and get better at, and give Ryan [Tannehill] the ability to climb the pocket and do those things. That’s what Josh does really well. He’s really good at outside zone, he’s a really good pass protector and just the intelligence. He’s not a vocal leader. He’s a lead-by-example guy, like the way he finishes in drills and stuff.

“We’re early in the process, two weeks in, but you start to see some of these younger guys watch him. He doesn’t talk a lot but they start to mimic what he does and how he finishes. Those are the type of leaders [we want], like [receivers] Danny Amendola and Albert Wilson.... You don’t hear them a lot, but all of a sudden you see Drew Morgan trying to copy something Danny did or DeVante Parker watching something Albert did or what Danny did.”

Loggains said of rookie running back Kelan Bellage: "When he walks through the door, that’s what they’re supposed to look like. He’s big, he’s put together and he’s a really smart kid. We’re excited about trying to tap him out. He’s got size, he’s got height, weight, speed. We’ve got to figure out what he does well and find out quickly... Because of his size and speed and the ability to catch the ball, he can play all three downs."

With Kenyan Drake, Frank Gore and Bellage, Loggains said “we’re really excited about that room and the things these guys can do…. If you had three Kenyan Drakes, you’d be really excited because he’s a guy that can play all three downs. ”

For the second consecutive year, the Dolphins made owner Stephen Ross happy after the draft by signing a player from Michigan, his alma mater. Last year, it was running back De’Veon Smith, who played in five regular-season games.

This year, it was linebacker Mike McCray, a 243-pound inside linebacker, who had 79 tackles at Michigan last season, including 11 for loss and 4.5 sacks.

As was the case with Smith last year, Ross called McCray after Miami signed him and congratulated him, told him to “come to work” and told him he enjoyed watching McCray play for the Wolverines.

“He comes up to Michigan all the time,” McCray said. “He comes to talk to the team a few times as well. He called my agent first, then he called me. We talked a little bit [after the draft]. We didn't talk a lot [at Michigan] but learning what he knows, he's a really smart guy, one of the richest people in the world. Building that connection, maybe longterm that will help me out.”

McCray cited his “good football IQ” as one of his best attributes. Like many retirees, McCray said “I always wanted to live in Florida.”

Though Dolphins running back Buddy Howell didn’t see eye to eye with FAU coach Lane Kiffin about his playing time last season, he made a point Saturday to thank him for one thing: “Kiffin said I will put you on special teams because in the NFL, that will help you survive. I thank him for that.”

Howell had 112 carries in 12 games in 2017 – down from 167 rushing attempts the year before – but averaged 6.7 per carry last season and scored 22 touchdowns in four seasons. He calls himself a “big back with some speed.”

He must hope he does enough over the next four months to motivate the Dolphins to keep him as a fourth running back.