DAVIE—It’s been a bizarre start to the season for the Miami Dolphins, but it’s likely no one on the team has experienced more of a whirlwind few weeks than linebacker Justin March-Lillard.
He was cruising through the offseason with the Chiefs thinking he was playing some of his best football with a strong candidacy for a starting job before they waived him at the roster cut deadline. Within 24 hours, the Dolphins claimed him and launched him into a scramble.
March-Lillard immediately got down to Miami, while his wife and their infant son drove home to Ohio to be with her parents. That happens quite a bit in football—T.J. Yates went through something similar when Miami signed him late last season, and Jay Cutler was plucked from his family in Nashville more recently—but that doesn’t make it easy.
“That’s the rough part of the business, but I feel like there’s a lot of guys that have to go through that,” said March-Lillard, 24. “It’s just one of those things you have to do. We’ve always known that was something we might have to do, so mentally we’re prepared regardless of what happens.
“My agent said it was a great organization and it’d be a good fit. Nick Williams, who was here, reached out to me and said it was a good organization. He’s always had high praise for this organization. When he found out I was coming here he said, ‘You’ll love it.’ It’s been a great transition so far.”
He initially thought his family might stay in Ohio, but now he plans to move them down to South Florida early next month.
His first practice with the Dolphins was two days before the NFL postponed their season opener in advance of Hurricane Irma, prompting the team to release its players to evacuate. Then they reconvened in Oxnard, Calif., to begin a three-week run that has them playing in Los Angeles, New York and London.
Through all the choppiness of the schedule, March-Lillard’s been trying to grasp a completely new defense and set of terminology under coordinator Matt Burke. The sooner he masters that the better, considering Miami had just four linebackers dressed for the Chargers game last weekend.
Kiko Alonso and Mike Hull were on the field every play of that game, a 19-17 win. Chase Allen got 24 percent of the snaps, and March-Lillard was exclusively on special teams.
The Dolphins won’t have much more depth Sunday when they face the Jets. Rey Maualuga remains unfit to play, and Lawrence Timmons is on indefinite suspension. The only change is that they traded for Stephone Anthony, but it’s a big ask for him to be ready to contribute five days later.
March-Lillard, meanwhile, believes he has a fairly good handle on the defense at this point and could get an opportunity to prove it.
He’s been resilient throughout his three-year career, starting with making the Chiefs’ roster as an undrafted rookie out of Akron in 2015. Whatever ground he gained that summer was forfeited when he tore his meniscus in a preseason game.
Nonetheless, he reemerged as a starter for Kansas City in 2016. That looked like his breakthrough until he broke his hand in the fifth game. He had 22 tackles and two pass break-ups in those starts.
March-Lillard was undeterred by the injury, though, and powered through an offseason training regimen that helped him drop from 245 to 228 pounds (he’s 6 feet tall) and set him up to play what he considered his best football when he arrived for Organized Team Activities, minicamp and training camp.
Now that he’s with the Dolphins, he sees his momentum continuing—and they badly need that to be true
“I still feel like I’m the best athlete that I’ve been in a long, long time,” he said.
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