DAVIE — There’s something sweet about the sound of football pads colliding at full speed and men crashing to the ground — hard-core, old-school tackling, and on July 31.
“Football season is back,” Miami Dolphins defensive end Andre Branch said Monday. “That’s what it sounds like. There’s no more OTA’s. No more mini camp. Football season is here.”
There’s something sweet about the Dolphins not only wearing full pads, as has not been the case, but trying to re-establish their physical running style, while also attempting to show they’re better prepared to stop the run.
“It was fun to go out there and finally get to tackle somebody, hit somebody, run around,” rookie middle linebacker Raekwon McMillan said. “You’re still trying to prove yourself to the coaches.”
There’s something sweet about all that built-up tension from the spring and early summer — let’s play touch football, let’s do some thumping, perhaps, but never, never take that man down to the ground — being unleashed on a practice field, where fans let out oohs and aahs usually reserved for fall Sundays.
“It gets a little bit more testy out there,” defensive end William Hayes said.
“For the most part, we found the violence,” defensive end Cam Wake said.
“It was good to get the competitive juices going,” running back Kenyan Drake said. “Sometimes you’ve got to get down and dirty. It’s football. It’s a contact sport.”
There is one downside to all of this, of course.
NFL coaches don’t typically allow players to tackle each other, at all, in practice, for fear of injury.
And yes, starting running back Jay Ajayi ended up in a concussion evaluation.
Ajayi took a shot so hard from imported linebacker Lawrence Timmons that Timmons’ helmet flew off.
Ajayi took a violent shot from new safety T.J. McDonald, who is built like a Predator.
And Ajayi was smashed to the ground by surly masher Ndamukong Suh.
“Jay was taking shots left and right,” Drake said. “That’s just the game. I’m sure he’ll be back sooner than later.”
Coach Adam Gase and first-year defensive coordinator Matt Burke had gone back and forth about how much, if at all, Dolphins should hit each other — and in this case, we’re talking LIVE tackling — and decided it was worth it.
Players tire of the same monotonous, tedious drills.
And this was the one-third mark of training camp. The first preseason game is 10 days away.
“You’re not going to win either way,” Gase said. “If we don’t go live, you guys write that we don’t work on tackling. If we do go live and somebody gets hurt, then you say we shouldn’t. It doesn’t matter. You’re going to be wrong either way. We feel like that’s best for our football team. We needed to go live and tackle and it’s football.”
Gase said the players were enthusiastic about the proposition. And make no mistake, the adrenaline was flowing. There were skirmishes. There was extraordinary intensity. There was passion.
“I’ve been thinking about it for a while, probably since last spring,” Gase said. “I think a lot of it had to do with just we made a lot of missed tackles last year. It probably took us a while to really get going in the run game and pass protection, kind of that sense of urgency to have. (I was) just talking to the coaches and seeing how we could set it up to where we could get great work in there. When you talk to some of your veteran players and you can’t even finish the sentence and they’re saying ‘Absolutely,’ that’s when you know it’s a good thing.”
For McMillan, taking live reps (particularly when he’s calling the plays, which he does when he’s in the game) was invaluable.
For Timmons, a chance to show he can still bring a hammer at the age of 31.
For McDonald, a chance to show what the Dolphins may have after Week 8, when his suspension ends.
Gase did not have his players tackling each other to the ground in any summer practice at Nova Southeastern last season. He felt a change was needed. And his players embraced it.
“For me and the guys that I play next to in the trenches, it’s hand-on-hand, collisions and combat every play, so to do it in shorts and T-shirts, it’s kind of different,” Wake said. “I like getting a little dirty with the fellas down in the dirt. So today was a first step to kind of put a finger on where we are.”
Added Branch: “When we’re just in jerseys, you can’t simulate a game. When you put the pads on, it’s game time.”
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