The Dolphins were surely encouraged by the speed Drake showed on two thrilling, memorable plays last season: a 45-yard touchdown run (against the Buffalo Bills) and a 96-yard kickoff return touchdown (against the New York Jets, Sunday’s opponent).
But in the first game of Drake’s second NFL season, there was another extremely promising development: Drake showed how effective he can be on punt and kickoff coverage.
With Jay Ajayi in line to carry the burden of most all Miami Dolphins carries this season, Drake exhibited his most immediate contribution this year could be as an all-around special teams dynamo.
“I just feel like I want to be a football player,” Drake said Thursday. “Being a football player doesn’t mean making plays only when you have the ball in your hands. It’s helping the team win any way possible.”
Drake made a very important fourth-quarter tackle on kickoff coverage in last week’s victory at the Los Angeles Chargers. The Dolphins trailed 17-16 with 6:26 left, when Drake raced down the field and dropped Austin Ekeler at the Chargers’ 12.
The Dolphins then forced a punt that preceded Cody Parkey’s game-winning field goal.
“In this league, every game is close,” Drake said. “It’s not like in college when you can have mismatches. In the league, everything is real close. So special teams play a big part of it. That’s why I feel I can help contribute to this team.”
Miami special teams coach Darren Rizzi said Drake has greatly improved in coverage since his arrival last season.
“Kenyan would be the first one to tell you, he didn’t tackle many people before he got to the Miami Dolphins; so that part of it, the defensive part of it, if you will, taking on blocks, getting guys on the ground, he’s really dramatically improved from this time last year to now,” Rizzi said. “His speed is obviously a huge asset and attribute to us, so we’re trying to get him to … Obviously he used it the other day.”
Drake recalled how important special teams was at Alabama, and that he did participate on some coverage teams.
“Broke my arm as a senior covering a kick,” Drake recalled.
But Drake is embracing all aspects of his special teams roles in the NFL, including this — starting gunner on Dolphins’ punt coverage.
It’s a role that often goes to a defensive back.
As a gunner, Drake is asked to use his speed on the outside of the field to be one of the first two players to reach the opposing punt returner, usually battling through two opposing players in order to make a tackle.
“Run down there and be an athlete,” Drake said. “Be a player. It’s really just making sure when you come down the field, you are under control. Watching their hips. It’s really just playing 1-on-1 defense in basketball. You know just making sure you stay in front of them. Near leg, mid-shoulder, that’s what they taught us at ‘Bama.”
In Miami’s last game, Ajayi had 28 carries and Drake had one.
Drake show maturity in the way he answered a question about his mindset relative to believing more carries should or would eventually come.
“That’s just not something that I’m not too worried about,” Drake said. “I’m worried about where my feet are at right now. And that’s helping this team win any way possible. We have great players on the field at all times, running back, receiver, quarterback. On defense. So I think special teams — you can’t say it’s lower. It’s the same. You have to have great players to go out there and play special teams or you’ll lose games. That’s why I really want to do my best.”