DAVIE — Coach Adam Gase calls Walt Aikens a “team-first guy,” meaning Aikens isn’t one to speak up about how he’d like to be used.
But Aikens admitted Wednesday that all this time he’d been a safety, he was quietly hoping he’d get a tap on the shoulder and be told the Dolphins would like him to work at cornerback.
“For sure, man, because it was my college position,” Aikens said. “Even at Illinois, I came in as a corner and then due to injuries went to safety. Same situation here, so it’s pretty cool to get back to my college position. Running around with these great receivers we have out here is getting the best work.”
At times it was impossible to miss Aikens last season.
At other times, it was impossible to find him.
Aikens was unquestionably one of the Dolphins’ top performers on special teams. Against the Cardinals he returned a blocked extra point for the first defensive two-point conversion in team history. Against the Jets he blocked a punt and returned it for a touchdown, becoming the first Dolphin to do so since 2012.
But on defense? He played just 15 snaps all season.
“Definitely,” Aikens said, on if he wished he could contribute more on defense. “But at the end of the day I do what I can to help the team win and if coach needs me to be the best special teams player, I’m going to be the best special teams player. If coach wants to throw me in on defense, I’m going to go out there and do my thing.”
Aikens figures that practicing at cornerback — but also see some work at safety — has made him a better player at both positions.
“You understand safety positions now and you understand that you’re their underneath help,” he said. “They’re your inside help, so you know how important each role is. So it’s easier to talk and communicate to each position.”
Aikens was a fourth-round pick out of Liberty, where he finished his college career, in 2014. At corner, he faces plenty of competition for playing time. Byron Maxwell and Xavien Howard are the likely starters, with Bobby McCain and Michael Thomas working at slot corner and Tony Lippett and third-rounder Cordrea Tankersley also in the mix.
“We’re just trying to find the right spot for him,” Gase said of Aikens. “We did the safety thing last year even though he was kind of an emergency corner as well and we just want to give him the best chance to be able to contribute on defense because we all know what he can do on special teams — he’s one of our top performers every week.”
Gase knows that by not holding Aikens to one position in the secondary, he’s increasing his workload, but that’s OK.
“It’s not an easy thing to do, to move back and forth,” Gase said. “I think he’s done a good job.”
DAVIE—Dolphins coach Adam Gase believes a team can never have enough reliable cornerbacks. In an effort to boost depth at that position, he’s had safety Walt Aikens working there throughout the offseason
Aikens, a fourth-year player, played safety off the bench last season and is a core special teams player. He said Wednesday he has not played safety during Organized Team Activities or minicamp.
“I’ve got to be in a role where I can do both,” said Aikens, who played corner in college. “The more you can do, the more you bring to the team. So wherever Coach wants me to play, I can go in and contribute right away.”
Miami currently has Byron Maxwell and Xavien Howard as the starting outside cornerbacks, and Bobby McCain is in the lead to be the slot corner. Tony Lippett started 13 games last year and had four interceptions, and the team brought in third-round pick Cordrea Tankersley. Backups Lafayette Pitts and Jordan Lucas are back as well.
So far, Aikens looks good enough to compete for a role within that group.
“We like having a versatile player in that role on the roster, so Walt has done a good job,” defensive coordinator Matt Burke said. “Again, we’re trying to put him maybe in a spot that he’s not as comfortable and see how he responds, and he’s done a good job working for us so far.”
Aikens is ready for whatever job the team gives him, but he’s enjoyed working at corner this spring.
“The fact that I get to play corner, you get to press up a little bit,” he said. “I’ve been loosening up my hips, so that’s been great.
“It brings back memories. When you see certain plays, certain formations, you kind of get a feel for it after a while. Offense is always changing; but at the same time, if you’re in the right spots, you can easily make a play on the ball or break on the ball. It’s preparing me well.”
There were times last season when safety Walt Aikens was hard to miss, such as when he blocked a punt and returned it for a touchdown against the Jets or when he returned a blocked extra point for a two-point defensive conversion.
Trouble is, there were times last season when Aikens was hard to find. He played only 15 snaps on defense all year, according to Pro Football Reference.
Wednesday, Aikens was making a pitch for more playing time, seeing action at cornerback during OTAs.
Coach Adam Gase explains:
“He did that last year with us, too. There were some times where we would move him out there (to cornerback) and just make sure that he was ready to go because he was up for every game, pretty much.
“He has to be in a position to where if somebody goes down at one of those spots, he has to be ready to go. We’re just trying to find the best fit for him.”
Which isn’t out of the realm of possibility, even though those 15 snaps represented a sharp drop from his 444 in 2015.
“I think he’s one of our better athletes for sure,” Gase said. “He’s a huge playmaker for us on special teams and we just want to make sure whatever spot we end up finalizing with him — corner or safety — it gives him the best opportunity to where if he goes in a game, he can have success.”
(Note: This continues a series in Daily Dolphin spotlighting members of the team individually. In addition to reliving highlights and lowlights of the past season for each, we’ll provide analysis and criticism, plus take a look at how each player fits — or doesn’t fit — into the team’s plans for 2017.)
S Walt Aikens
Height, weight: 6-1, 218
Experience: Entering fourth season, all with Dolphins
Acquired: Fourth-round pick of Dolphins in 2014
Contract: Entering final year of contract; due to make $793,977 in 2017
Pro Football Focus rank: Has not played enough snaps from scrimmage to be ranked
Stats: Did not register a tackle on defense.
Notable moments: Blocked a punt by Jets’ Lachlan Edwards and returned it 11 yards for a touchdown. Also had a defensive two-point conversion after Jordan Phillips blocked a PAT vs. Arizona.
Straight talk: Don’t let the lack of stats or snaps in Miami’s defense fool you. As the season wore on, Aikens became an increasingly valuable member of the special teams.
Aikens had one wicked December. He made a big play against the Jets, flying in unblocked to block a punt that he returned for a touchdown.
“We practice that all the time,” he said. “I don’t know where it hit me, but I felt it. I was just looking for the ball. Gotta go get it. See ball, get ball. Scoopin’ and scorin’, we practice that a lot. See ball, get ball.
“I was very surprised (not to be blocked), but Rizz always tells us not to expect that. You never know who will come free, and I was just in the right place at the right time.”
“Rizz” is Darren Rizzi, the special teams coordinator and assistant head coach whose facial expressions on the sideline are a scoreboard in and of themselves.
Only a week earlier, Rizz was grinning over another big day by Aikens. He downed a Cardinals punt on the 1-yard line. Even though the Cardinals drove 99 yards for a touchdown, Aikens wasn’t caving. Phillips blocked the extra point by Chandler Catanzaro and Aikens did more scoopin’ and scorin’, returning it for a rare defensive two-point conversion in a 26-23 victory.
Aikens also showed veteran’s maturity as the team closed in on a playoff berth. Considering the Dolphins hadn’t been to the playoffs since 2008, it seemed like cause for celebration.
“Nah,” Aikens said. “We’ve got to get ready for the next game. It’s business.”
Prospects for 2017
Regardless of whether special teams captain Michael Thomas, a free agent, returns to the Dolphins, there’s a good chance Aikens’ impact could be felt even more on special teams in 2017.
As for Aikens’ role on defense, consider that starting safeties Reshad Jones and Isa Abdul-Quddus finished the season on injured reserve, yet Aikens still couldn’t get on the field.
By 11:30 Sunday night, the Dolphins could be a playoff team. Maybe news of that sort is a yawner in New England, where it’s expected of the Patriots, but in South Florida, it’s cause for celebration.
Not so fast.
Safety Walt Aikens is just one of 53 on the Dolphins’ roster, but if his voice is indicative, some interesting dynamics are at work, no doubt orchestrated by coach Adam Gase. Aikens says if this weekend’s results go Miami’s way, there won’t be any celebration.
“Nah,” Aikens said. “We’ve got to get ready for the next game. It’s business.”
The first order of business for the Dolphins is to win in Buffalo on Saturday and see if the Chiefs to beat the visiting Broncos on Sunday night, meaning that at about 11:30 p.m. Sunday, the Dolphins could own a playoff berth for the first time since 2008.
Of course, it’s one thing to talk this way, another to follow through. And it is difficult to imagine none of the Dolphins hoisting one adult beverage to mark the occasion.
Still, Aikens’ philosophy might be a telling one.
Teams not used to success often must learn how to deal with it. The 1972 Dolphins never would have been the 1972 Dolphins if not for the close-but-no-cigar failure of the 1971 Dolphins. The pattern holds true through the decades, in whatever sport you care to name. Aikens’ thinking could help these Dolphins avoid the happy-to-be-here trap.
“It’s been a long time since we’ve had a winning season and the fact that we had a positive season already — we want to pick up on that,” he said. “These guys want to do great things. We’re not out here worrying about partying and all that, man. We want to go out there and play ball. The fact that everybody’s focused on that is really a great thing to see out here. These guys — even the practice squad guys — everybody’s focused on winning right now.”
These Dolphins have won nine games to assure themselves a winning season. Didn’t they enjoy those nine days?
“Oh, you embrace it,” Aikens said. “You enjoy it that night. You of course have your victory Monday or Sunday, depending on when the game is, and then we come in here, we watch what we did the previous week and it’s back to work. Everything starts a whole new cycle.”
Aikens has played a key role lately, returning a blocked extra point for a defensive two-point conversion and blocking a punt and returning that for a touchdown. But in neither case, he said, was his personal celebration out of the ordinary.
“That was cool but it won’t matter if I don’t do anything this week,” he said.
At this rate, the Dolphins might be putting in a rush order for 53 wireless microphones.
You probably saw Dolphins safety Walt Aikens make two impact plays in the 26-23 victory over the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday.
But did you hear him?
Decent chance you will, courtesy of NFL Films, which by sheer luck ended up putting a microphone on Aikens for the game.
Talk about paydirt. Aikens began the fourth quarter by downing a 40-yard punt by Matt Darr on the Cardinals’ 1. Although Arizona overcame the odds by driving 99 yards for a touchdown, Aikens wasn’t finished.
Following the 9-yard touchdown pass by Carson Palmer to Brittan Golden, Jordan Phillips blocked the extra point by Chandler Catanzaro. Aikens scooped up the ball and went all the way for a defensive two-point conversion that proved vital.
Now it’s just a matter of when the clip airs. What are we going to hear?
“A lot of noise,” Aikens said. “I’m a very vocal person, so you’re going to hear a lot of talking.”
For an extended time.
“During (the play), after, it don’t matter,” Aikens said. “I talk myself up. That’s part of my game.”
Aikens said he hadn’t visited the end zone since college. After scoring his first NFL points, he made sure to keep the ball, which he plans to put in a case. The score, incidentally, was the first of its kind in team history.
Aikens had a convoy, including special teams captain Michael Thomas, to run interference.
“I had the whole infantry right there, so we took off together,” Aikens said.
That play required endurance. Downing the ball on the 1 required quick reflexes.
“I tell the rest of my gunners, Bobby McCain and Worm (Lafayette Pitts) and (Jordan) Lucas, I always tell them, ‘Meet me at the ball’ just in case something goes wrong,” Aikens said.
Something almost did.
“It took a weird bounce,” Aikens said. “I was coming from the other side and the ball kind of cut back on me, so I had to jump backwards while I was running the opposite way just to try to get a hand out there. But we practice that all the time, daily.”
Of course, Aikens had to contort his body while making sure he didn’t step into the end zone, which would have resulted in a touchback. In the end, it worked out for Aikens, for the Dolphins, for NFL Films.
So will a microphone become part of his standard uniform?
The Dolphins have major decisions to make with impending free agents and players who might be too costly to keep. Here’s a look at every player who finished the season on the 53-man roster (or injured reserve or the suspension list) with beat writer Andrew Abramson’s prediction for whether or not he will remain on the team in 2016.
Even though the season goes down as 6-10 for the Dolphins, it doesn’t mean there weren’t moments and people worth remembering. Here’s a look at the highlights, lowlights and inexplicables of 2015-16.
Play of the year
WR Jarvis Landry
Step aside, Odell Beckham Jr. Your buddy, Landry, scores the NFL’s catch of the year with a 26-yard, one-handed, falling-backward, how’d-he-do-that grab against the Indianapolis Colts.
WR Rishard Matthews
Matthews, only 26, had a breakout year, going from 12 receptions for 135 yards last season to 43 catches for 662 yards despite missing five games to injury. That’s the good news. The bad news: He probably priced himself out of the Dolphins’ market for next season.
Most awkward moment
50th anniversary gala
The Dolphins were showing highlights throughout the evening. The ‘60s were marked by the awarding of the franchise to Joe Robbie. The ‘70s: a dynasty. The ‘80s and ‘90s: the Marino Years. The past 1 1/2 decades? Uh … anyone have a suggestion? They showed Michael Thomas’ storybook interception of Tom Brady in the end zone. That was about it.
Quote of the year
Owner Stephen Ross and interim coach Dan Campbell (tie)
First quote of the season: Ross was asked if he’s getting impatient and ready for results right now. “You’re goddamn right!” he said.
Campbell said, “I think Magic Johnson is a hell of a player” in response to, well, if you don’t know, just Google “Magic Johnson & Dolphins Wife.”
C Mike Pouncey
Pouncey was emotional this past offseason when he accepted the team’s contract extension, talking about how grateful he was that the organization stuck with him despite boneheaded mistakes he’d made early in his career. What happened next? Pouncey fulfilled his promise to grow up to such an extent that teammates voted him winner of the Leadership Award.
Still a mystery
RB Jay Ajayi
The Dolphins blew it by putting him on short-term injured reserve with a preseason rib injury, costing him the first half of the season when he probably could have played after the first couple of weeks. Ajayi finished with only 49 carries this season, meaning the Dolphins still don’t know what they have in him if Lamar Miller bolts in free agency.
It wasn’t until late in the season that QB Ryan Tannehill was involved in putting together the game plan? Seriously?
The run game
How the Dolphins went deep into the season with one of the best per-rush averages in the NFL — and one of the worst attempts-per-game averages in the NFL.
The run defense
How the Dolphins added Ndamukong Suh to the defensive line and still regressed on run defense, giving up 5 more yards per game over an already lame 2014 performance.
Strangest locker room tale
One day, DE Cam Wake went on a monologue to explain why the section of the locker room occupied by himself and Ndamukong Suh — and only those two, despite the presence of six lockers — was considered such prime real estate, you had to be invited simply to apply for occupancy there. He pointed out the many amenities, including his bubble machine (not making this up).
Equally strange locker room tale
OT Ulrick John
One day, the freshly signed John popped up in the locker room … and was assigned a stall smack in the middle of Manhattan, clueless on the significance.
Downright bizarre locker room tale
DE Damontre Moore
Amid a serious interview with Ryan Tannehill over whether the locker room was divided, Moore barged in with a microphone he’d taken from a reporter and asked, if Tannehill felt “blessed and fortunate … to have a beautiful specimen like myself as a teammate.” Tannehill’s response: “No.”
S Walt Aikens
Aikens spread Christmas spirit by purchasing groceries for a grandmother he’d just met in the checkout line. Touched, she took down his address and sent him what became of those groceries — a batch of cookies she’d baked. He wasn’t in any rush to share them with teammates, and who could blame him, as sweet as the whole thing was?
Dolphins throwback jerseys
Simple. Ditch the current jerseys. Wear the old ones. Just wash them first, OK?
It is what it isn’t award
Yeah, that was me grilling Tannehill on what went wrong for this team this year. After he blew off my question by saying the reason for missing the playoffs was they didn’t win enough games, I kept at it, repeatedly asking why as he repeatedly blew off my questions. “I can keep going if you want,” he said as I waved the white flag and told him he’d won. Some took this as license that Tannehill wasn’t taking his job seriously by kissing off the losses. These were the same folks who weren’t there and had no clue of the context. Hey, people: Ryan and I were just having fun, laughing the whole time. And if you think he wasn’t owning up to things he could have done better, you weren’t paying attention to the other 15 weekly media sessions we had.
Best defensive player
S Reshad Jones
Still waiting for someone to explain how this guy is just an alternate to the Pro Bowl: 135 tackles, two sacks, five interceptions, including two pick-6s. Somebody get this guy a ticket to Hawaii in first class.
WR Jarvis Landry
Landry was my pick not only because of what he meant to the offense (1,157 yards on 110 receptions) but his added value on special teams. But even as I cast that vote, I felt guilty about shortchanging Jones. Luckily, enough other voters felt the same way, so Landry and Jones ended up sharing the team’s MVP award. I have a hunch, by the way, that Landry was hurting much more than anyone knew the last half of the season, but he still warranted the pound-for-pound title for yards after contact.