MIAMI GARDENS — It was all weighing on Kenyan Drake. Zero rushes and zero pass catches in the past two games. Coaches stressing the need to always be professional.
And in the second quarter against the rival New York Jets on Sunday, an illegal block above the waist by Drake that actually nullified a punt return for a touchdown by fellow rookie Jakeem Grant.
Drake was drafted in the third round to create touchdowns, not nullify them.
And so with the Miami Dolphins trailing 23-20 and 5:47 left at Hard Rock Stadium, Drake and Grant were awaiting a kickoff from Nick Folk.
“I owed him one, point blank,” Drake said of Grant. “It was a tough call and he had a great return. I told him right before that, ‘If he kicks to either one of us, we’ve got to make them pay. It doesn’t matter if we’re rookies. It doesn’t matter what we’ve done before, in this game or in our careers. We’ve got to make this next play count.’ And we did.”
Grant received the kick at Miami’s 4-yard line.
Miami running back Damien Williams was a blocker on the play.
“Really, they were trying to kick it away from Jakeem,” Williams said. “He had just taken it to the crib and it got called back unfortunately. But you know, they kicked a short ball, which is bad on their part.”
Drake began to accelerate, just as he had in Alabama’s national championship game victory in January.
As he ran toward a wall of blockers, one by one, Miami washed out potential tacklers in green.
Mike Hull had his man. So did Michael Thomas. And Spencer Paysinger. And Walt Aikens. A crease was developing.
“You have to play every (kickoff return) like we’re taking it out, so get on your blocks,” Aikens said. “Get on your man, you never know. Special teams can change the whole dynamic of a game.”
Dolphins punter Matt Darr knows. Fourteen seconds earlier, Darr flat-out dropped a punt that set up a Jets go-ahead score.
But back to Drake, who burst through the seam and easily outlasted a dive by Jets defensive back Buster Skrine and a chasing Juston Burris.
In the end, it was Drake and punter Lachlan Edwards.
“I knew with (Drake’s) speed and what he did in college, I already knew what time it was,” Damien Williams said. “He was going to the house.”
Of the punter, Drake, as all skilled return men do, said: “I couldn’t let him tackle me.”
And he didn’t. Drake has more special teams participation than about all but two other Dolphins this seasons. And it is tiring.
“I was trying to remember what my track coach told me, ‘Just pick those knees up and keep your form,'” Drake said. “I was kind of losing it at the end. By the grace of God, I was able to make it to the end zone.”
Running along the sideline at Hard Rock was Dolphins guard Anthony Steen, a one-time teammate of Drake’s at Alabama. Last season, Steen watched Drake’s kickoff return touchdown to help Alabama defeat Clemson on television.
“I was yelling, ‘Roll Tide!’ all the way down the sideline,” Steen said.
Drake was deep at the bottom of a pile in an end zone on Sunday afternoon, Dolphins players realizing this rookie may have kept playoff hopes alive. Dolphins fans realize for the organization to maintain a bright future, third-round picks like Drake must realize lofty expectations.
Drake said he was thinking it would be nice to take a nap right there.
When Drake committed the costly penalty in the second quarter, special teams coach and assistant head coach Darren Rizzi pulled him aside.
“That really kind of ate at me, because you never want to give points back off the field,” Drake said. “(Rizzi) was reassuring me. He said that I was going to get an opportunity to help this team win.”
Teammates like Steen know that Drake has the physical tools to make an impact on any game. But they are not shy to echo the sentiments of coaches, who openly call for more consistency.
“He’s starting to get the hang of the NFL,” Steen said. “It’s time to man up. This is your job. And he’s taking that head on. And he’s doing great right now. And if he stays focused I think the sky is the limit for him. He’s got enough talent. It’s there for him. It’s just a matter of how bad does he want it. And I think today it showed. He came through for us when we really needed it. He’s a great asset for this team.”
So exhausted after the game that he literally had to excuse himself to vomit, before addressing the media assembled at his locker, Drake found a major way to contribute to Miami’s third consecutive win.
“I think those are what dreams are made of, honestly,” Drake said. “You always have to think, ‘Why not me?'”