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Bright Future Ahead For Dolphins' 2011 Rookie Class

Posted Dec 29, 2011

Looking ahead to the future for the Miami Dolphins, it is quite apparent that this year’s rookie class will continue to have a significant say in the team’s success.

Led by 2011 first-round draft pick Mike Pouncey at center, this is a group of five who despite not having an offseason to get acclimated due to the NFL lockout met or exceeded expectations. Running back Daniel Thomas was chosen in the second round, followed by wide receiver Clyde Gates in the fourth round, H-back Charles Clay in the sixth round and cornerback Jimmy Wilson in the seventh round.

Pouncey came in with the highest expectations out of the University of Florida, with his twin brother Maurkice having made the Pro Bowl as a rookie last season at center with the Pittsburgh Steelers. At 6-5 and 303 pounds, his athleticism was never in question, but there were some skeptics who felt Pouncey might be better suited as a guard since his senior season with the Gators was his first at center.

“I’ll tell you this, I think Mike Pouncey, being around him and watching him, he can play wherever you want him to play,” said Dolphins offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, who coached Pro Bowl centers Nick Mangold and Alex Mack with the New York Jets and Cleveland Browns. “I think he’s just a very, very good player and I think he’s going to get better, but to come in and play at that position and to do it at a high level as a young player is special.”

Daboll described Pouncey as a “young guy who plays like a veteran,” based on how he prepares in practice and the classroom and then how he translates that into games. From the season opener against New England when he had to block Pro Bowl nose tackle Vince Wilfork and Albert Haynesworth, Pouncey never let it seem like the game at this level was too big for him.

Obviously, having a brother with one year in the league under his belt helped Pouncey, but he never allowed himself to get comfortable. That’s a quality each one of these rookies shared because of the unique circumstances under which they began their careers.

“I think I’ve come miles and miles from that first day of training camp,” Pouncey said. “When I first came in I didn’t know anything. I didn’t know which way to go, I didn’t know which play we were calling and I was lost. I was in a strange world but now I just feel like I know everything and I’m playing to the best of my ability.”

Ability was never really a concern for Wilson, the only defensive player in the class, but defensive coordinator Mike Nolan pointed out how rare it is for seventh-round draft picks to make a 53-man roster at his position. The fact that he missed three years of college football after facing murder charges and spending 25 months in jail drastically hurt his stock.

Wilson, 25, sat through two trials before being acquitted and then he set out to prove he was worth taking a chance on. He credits his off-the-field experience, age and maturity as the reasons he was able to adapt quickly to the pros. That’s a theory shared by Nolan.

“It is a good thing that he is a little older right now,” Nolan said. “As strange as it sounds, that does help guys when they come in the NFL with a little more maturity. Some of the young guys, their eyes are big and reality sets in kind of early and then they go to sleep until their sophomore year.”

Early in training camp and throughout the preseason and regular season Wilson displayed a high intensity. He didn’t care if he was lining up at corner, safety or on special teams; he wanted to leave a lasting impression on the coaching staff.

The two highlights of Wilson’s rookie season were his first career interception against the Cleveland Browns in Week 3 and the punt he blocked against Philadelphia in Week 14. Perhaps nobody is looking forward to a real offseason during which he can continue his progress more than Wilson.

“I haven’t really had an offseason in like four or five years,” he said. “So this is going to be great just for me to be able to get my body to exactly where I want it to be and my mind exactly where I want it to be. We’re going to be able to have the minicamps and everything, so come next year I think I’ll be in a good spot to make a difference.”

Thomas and Clay were slightly derailed this season by hamstring injuries that forced them to miss a combined five games. Clay sat out the first two games at home against New England and Houston, while Thomas missed the opener against the Patriots and road games at San Diego in Week 4 and at the New York Giants in Week 8.

As much as missing those games stunted their development to some degree, Daboll couldn’t say enough about how Thomas and Clay made up for that lost time in practice. By the time the Dolphins reached the homestretch of their schedule, both had shown just how much more they can bring to the offense next year.

Thomas ranked second among all rookie running backs in rushing yards despite missing those three games.

“Daniel has developed throughout the year and I think he’s understanding how to run like a big back each week more and more,” Daboll said. “He can get an edge and run and he runs with power. He’s a guy who goes forward and he’s carved out some niches in the running game that he excels at. He improved his blocking and has been a productive guy for the amount of games he missed and I think he’s a good player. He’s got the right attitude. He’s smart, he’s tough, he’s competitive, he likes football and it’s important to him.”

When it comes to Clay, the proof has been in how the soft-spoken rookie out of Tulsa handled so many different things being thrown at him as a fullback and tight end. He’s had to block big defensive linemen at the line of scrimmage, pick up blitzing linebackers and defensive backs from the fullback position, lead Thomas and Reggie Bush up the middle or around the edge, and run precise routes in the passing game.

Clay showed off his hands with a one-handed catch against the Denver Broncos on Oct. 23 that gained 29 yards and also had catches of 46, 31, 30 and 22 yards through Week 15. Even though he and Daboll agree he has come a long way since training camp, Clay isn’t satisfied.

“I had some nights during camp when I didn’t sleep much at all, but I feel like it all paid off and I feel like I’ve come a long way,” he said. “I feel like as an offense and as a team we’re going to be one of the best in the league. Having that chance to build that chemistry and having time to work on those plays will only benefit us that much more.”

Gates, who came from Abilene Christian with a bit of a swagger and sprinter’s speed, realized what a leap he was making from college to the NFL. He feels like he’s still learning a lot about the wide receiver position, but he made great strides on special teams returning kickoffs.

As the fourth receiver behind Brandon Marshall, Davone Bess and Brian Hartline, Gates’ opportunities were limited on offense. He caught just two passes for 19 yards in the first 14 games but excelled as a blocker down the field, which was a testament to his work ethic.

“That’s what I look forward to every day is coming in here working hard and getting better at something,” Gates said. “I feel like the rookie class, we are real close and we have a chemistry. We look out for each other and we talk to each other outside the lines. Most of us live out in Weston, so we see each other out there. I feel like we all had an impact on this team and we’re still learning a lot and we’re making the best of it.”

Daboll can’t argue that point.

“They’re good kids,” he said. “They want to do well, they listen, they work hard, they pay attention to veterans, so they’re just a good bunch of guys. If all four of these guys have a true offseason where we have time to sit down with them and go through tape and really study more, those guys are all going to get better. They’re four hard-working, smart and tough guys that have all contributed in certain areas of the field as rookies, which is a good thing to see.”

As the first draft pick of the class, Pouncey naturally has assumed the role of spokesman and he had a hard time containing his enthusiasm when he talked about what’s in store for him and his classmates.

“The sky’s the limit for us,” Pouncey said. “We came in and the stuff we’ve done this year without having any minicamps or OTAs and how we learned the offense and where we’re at now, next year’s just going to be great for us. I can’t wait for it.”

INJURY UPDATE: Running back Reggie Bush (knee), linebacker Karlos Dansby (non-injury) and rookie cornerback Jimmy Wilson (hamstring) did not practice again today. … Right tackle Marc Colombo (ankle), rookie wide receiver Edmond Gates (groin) and wide receiver Brandon Marshall (knee) were limited, with Colombo having missed Wednesday’s practice. … Cornerback Vontae Davis (elbow), tight end Anthony Fasano (head) and rookie running back Daniel Thomas practiced in full. … For the Jets, linebacker Garrett McIntyre (knee) did not practice again. … Cornerback Marquice Cole (knee), defensive tackle Mike Devito (knee), guard Brandon Moore (hip), safety Eric Smith (knee) and defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson (knee) all were limited. … Left tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson (foot), running backs LaDanian Tomlinson (quad) Shonn Greene (rib) and Joe McKnight (shoulder/elbow) and defensive end Ropati Pitoitua (hand) participated in a full practice.

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