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Rizzi Breaks Down Dolphins Special Teams
By on May 20, 2013 at 3:53 pm

RizziThe battle for spots on the back end of the roster becomes increasingly more interesting as a team begins to solidify itself under a new regime.

You got a taste of it last year on Hard Knocks, when several fringe players were profiled, but, remember, this was before Ryan Tannehill had won the starting quarterback job — there was more uncertainty and first impressions were important, even for those whom you’d have expected to be a lock to start.

Now, with a big free-agent haul beginning to be integrated, things are beginning to heat up, and Darren Rizzi, the Dolphins’ special teams coordinator, recently sat down with The Finsiders to walk through the process of building a successful unit.

“The thing we do from day one is really explain to the rookies, hey, listen, this is going to potentially be your way onto the football team,” Rizzi said. “If you start, great go get ‘em. Chances are most rookies aren’t going to be a ‘starter’ at their position.”

Putting together a formidable unit presents bit of a catch-22 for Rizzi: He has to pick the right blend from a pool of players who have likely never played special teams before. At the Division 1 level, rosters are large enough that starters are typically spared from double duty, due in part to a fear Once you start to get a feel for the roster, you begin to look for guys that can be multiple. Which special teams players can potentially help out on offense or defense — and vice versa?

So there is a running dialogue, Rizzi said, with both Mike Sherman and Kevin Coyle at this time of year to start sketching out who may be a good fit. 

“Special teams, as you guys know, you can’t be one-dimensional; you have to wear a lot of hats,” Rizzi said. “You’ve got to be able to run down the field and make a tackle, and flip around the next time and block somebody. Sometimes those one-dimensional guys aren’t the guys you’re looking for. You’re really looking for a more well-rounded guy that can play what we call the four core teams.”

One of those malleable pieces, Marcus Thigpen, returns to the unit in 2013, perhaps even earning an expanded role on offense after a superb rookie season. A two-sport athlete in college — he also ran track — Thigpen caught on in the CFL, becoming the first player in league history to score a touchdown five different ways (kickoff return, punt return, missed field goal return, receiving, rushing). Once Dolphins coaches, including Rizzi, had a chance to work with him last summer, there was a sense that they had found a “diamond-in-the-rough type of player.”

A taste of NFL success has left Thigpen wanting more, and there is a mutual feeling that the best is yet to come.

“We still feel the ceiling is still high for him. He can still improve,” Rizzi said. But you sit back and look at this time of the year and he was in the top five both kick return average and punt return average, which for us is a great problem. We had a guy that was a quality guy last year but we feel can continue to improve.”

One of the summer’s most direct, one-on-one position battle will take place right under Rizzi’s watch. The Dolphins went against maintaining the status quo this offseason, bringing in Caleb Sturgis, the former Florida kicker, to compete with Dan Carpenter, the entrenched veteran.

“It’s going to be a very interesting battle,”said Rizzi, who helped conduct a nationwide search for a college kicker.  “It’s the classic case of the young guy coming up and seeing if he can make the transition against a proven professional kicker. So we’re looking forward to the competition, for sure.”

RELATED: Undrafted Free Agents Have Found Success With Dolphins 

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The opinions, analysis and/or speculation expressed by The Finsiders Blog represent those of individual writers, and unless quoted or clearly labeled as such, do not represent the opinions, policies or desires of the Miami Dolphins organization, front office, coaches and executives. Writers' views are formulated independently from any inside information and/or conversation with Dolphins officials, including the coaches and scouts, unless otherwise noted.
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professorlou says:

They need to stop playing games and pay Reshad Jones. If you can bring in a player like Ellerbe, who sat in the shadow of Ray Lewis up until last season, you can pay a guy who busted his hump for you over the past two seasons. It’s an insult to your own players when you bring in guys from the outside and give them a nice contract and let your own guys linger. Pay the man!

midwestfinfan says:

Carpenter missed some very makeable FGs last year that cost the team a couple of games. I’m glad to see the competition. If Carpenter doesn’t perform again, Sturgis will be the Dolphins kicker. With the large number of good quality college kickers anymore, I think it makes sense to bring in a rookie kicker every 2 to 3 years for the competition in camp. Who knows, you may find another Vinitari or Andersen.