DAVIE — He never showed it on the outside. Among veterans on the Dolphins, few could rival Walt Aikens for the permanent smile painted on his face or the joy in his voice, in both good times and bad.
Tuesday, Aikens admitted appearances deceived. He’s the guy fans know as one of Miami’s best special teams players, but that’s it. Some know he’s listed as a defensive back, but through four NFL seasons, they’ve had little evidence to prove he actually is a defensive back.
Yes, that inactivity ate at him. More than he ever showed.
“I feel like I kind of fell off, confidence-wise, the past couple of years, but I’m coming back in, refocused, refreshed, full of confidence, full of energy, and just ready to ball out,” Aikens said.
The reason he lost confidence is somewhat predictable. Less predictable, however, is that Aikens says his drop in confidence spans more than just 2017, because he ended the 2016 season on a hot streak of huge special teams plays, including a defensive two-point conversion and a blocked punt for a touchdown.
It wasn’t enough for him.
“Just not being on the field as much as I would want to and just being labeled a special teams player for so long,” Aikens said. “I kind of got down on myself. I know I can ball.”
This summer, coaches are testing the waters with Aikens in on defense. He saw a bit of action in last year’s finale, against Buffalo, and did well enough to warrant another look this month.
“We were kind of experimenting with a lot of different things in that game and that was one of the things that we talked about doing was trying to put a little package together to where he could play defense and just kind of give him that feel and see how he did,” coach Adam Gase said. “He didn’t have a ton of plays but he did his job. … He’s a really good tackler.”
Aikens’ role this summer has been, in his words, “safety, but being alert for anytime we need corners.” He’s more than content with either, because either job is better than spectating.
“He’s worked extremely hard to try to find that role on defense,” Gase said. “I know he wants to be a part of that.”
Aikens was acquired in the fourth round of the 2014 draft, which wasn’t all that long ago, yet he and tackle Ja’Wuan James are the only players left from that draft class. His consistent production on special teams led the Dolphins to give him a two-year, $2.7 million extension this offseason.
“This is home, man,” Aikens said. “So any other team was just a second option.”
Besides the money, Aikens heard Gase and defensive backs coach Tony Oden say he’d receive a shot at an increased role in 2018.
“Definitely,” he said. “That was a big part of staying.”
First, there’s still work to be done on special teams. With Michael Thomas joining the Giants, Aikens is now poised to become the Dolphins’ special teams captain while hoping 2018 brings a bit more than that.
“We’re just going to keep working on trying to find the best spot for him as far as our defense goes,” Gase said. “We know what he can do on special teams. Watching his film from last year, just when we went back and evaluated, that was special stuff that he was doing.”
Aikens hopes that when training camp begins, the coaches keep working to find that spot for him.
“It’s a lot that I ain’t shown yet,” he said.