Barry Jackson

What’s going on with the Miami Dolphins’ young defensive players? Coaches weigh in

Miami Dolphins third-round rookie linebacker Jerome Baker, seen here practicing last Friday, has flashed at training camp but not enough to seriously challenge to be a starter yet.
Miami Dolphins third-round rookie linebacker Jerome Baker, seen here practicing last Friday, has flashed at training camp but not enough to seriously challenge to be a starter yet. ctrainor@miamiherald.com

Xavien Howard has taken the biggest step among the Dolphins’ young defenders, having emerged late in his second season last December and thriving in training camp, with three interceptions off Ryan Tannehill on Thursday.

But what about some of Miami’s other young defensive players? How are they doing?

Their position coaches weighed in on Thursday:

Defensive line coach Kris Kocurek, in his first year after nine with the Lions, has a pretty good handle on defensive end Charles Harris, coming off a two-sack rookie season.

“When you watched him on film last year, when he just pinned his ears back and went as fast as he could, that’s when good things happened for him,” Kocurek said. “When things got in his head and he played a little hesitant, that’s when he wasn’t so good. So we just want Charles to play as fast as he can.”

Second-year defensive tackle Davon Godchaux has come on strong, to the point where the Dolphins opened team drills Thursday with Godchaux — not usual starter Jordan Phillips — working alongside Akeem Spence with the starters.

“He was getting reps with the ones and got a little bit more today,” Kocurek said of Godchaux. “We want to get him a look there. He’s been doing well.”

Miami Dolphins cornerback Xavien Howard impressive with three interceptions at practice and can't wait to brag in the locker room.

(Kocurek indicated none of this was a poor reflection on Phillips, who stuffed two Sinorise Perry runs for no gain on Thursday and has “really started to show up. Consistency is starting to come.”)

Defensive tackle Vincent Taylor was again disruptive against the second-team offensive line, continuing an impressive camp.

The reason he’s thriving, Kocurek said, is because “he is extremely strong. He’s really taken to the attack scheme. He takes his craft very serious. Not where we want to be yet but heading in the right direction.”

Second-year linebacker Chase Allen opened with the starters at outside linebacker Thursday, ahead of Stephone Anthony, who had been receiving the majority of the first-team work. Allen has two interceptions in camp and is often around the ball.

“We want to keep the competition going, not let anyone get comfortable,” linebackers coach Frank Bush said. “He and Stephone have real competition, but we also make sure Chase gets enough repetitions inside.”

As for Anthony, “we used Stephone in some third down situations [after his September acquisition last season] but now he’s with the first group on first and second downs and he’s doing a good job,” Bush said. “[But] we want to always keep our options open.”

And what about rookie third-round linebacker Jerome Baker? The Dolphins apparently don’t believe he’s ready to be a starter, though he has made a handful of notable plays in camp.

“Really good athlete; runs around well,” Bush said. “His brain has been good. He’s just got to learn how to be a pro and keep it going every single day. He flashes a lot, a lot of good stuff there; he’s got to mature as a player.”

So are mental mistakes the issue with Baker? “Not so much mental,” Bush said. “A lot of it is physical. A lot of it is not understanding how we do things. He needs more time. He’ll get it.” And his run defense, which was a bit of a question? “So far, so good,” Bush said.

Bush said second-year starting middle linebacker Raekwon McMillan, whose rookie season was wiped out by a preseason knee injury, “is who we thought he was. He’s doing all the things we suspected. His legs have come around. His brain has always been good. Some of things he was doing last year and making mistakes on, this year he’s not making as many mistakes.”

In the defensive backfield, rookie first-round safety Minkah Fitzpatrick continues to work more with the second team than the starters, partly because TJ. McDonald has had a very good camp. Fitzpatrick has had his moments, including an outstanding end-zone play in coverage on Wednesday.

Miami Dolphins special teams coordinator Darren Rizzi sees running back Jakeem Grant more confident with kick returns.

“I think we drafted the right guy,” defensive backs coach Tony Oden said of Fitzpatrick.

“He’s smart, he’s a problem solver. There’s still a lot he doesn’t know and [he will] go through growing pains. But he’s right where he needs to be.”

Oden said the starting cornerback battle is “competitive” among Cordrea Tankersley (three days opening with the starters), Torry McTyer (also three days, including Thursday) and Tony Lippett (one day).

Oden said McTyer, on days he has worked with the starters, has “been competitive. Not perfect but none of them are. Tank is a long corner, working on his transition.”

HAYES INJURED

Defensive end/tackle William Hayes was on the ground for several minutes with a leg injury and walked off with a heavy limp. Cameron Malveaux , who impressed the staff in his late-season opportunity last year, now moves up a spot in Hayes’ absence and is well equipped to play both inside and outside, Kocurek said.

Tight ends MarQueis Gray (minor injury) and A.J. Derby (foot), center Jake Brendel (calf) and receiver Isaiah Ford (shoulder) all missed practice.

Actor Andy Garcia and longtime NFL defensive coordinator Rob Ryan were among guests at practice on Thursday.

We’ll have more Dolphins information from Thursday later today.

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