Clay Coming Up Big At Tight End

Posted Sep 17, 2013

Third-year hybrid has eased the pain of Keller’s loss to injury.

Within hours after Miami Dolphins tight end Dustin Keller suffered a season-ending knee injury in the third preseason game at Houston, the outside voices doubted the team could survive the blow. Surely the answer wasn’t on the roster, they claimed.

Tight ends coach Dan Campbell begged to differ with that opinion, having complete faith in third-year tight end Charles Clay. His answer to the question of whether Miami needed to go out and find a replacement for Keller was simple.

“He’s been here all along,” Campbell said. “Charles Clay has been here all along. There was never any wavering. This was just a matter of time. Charles Clay, he’s been here the whole time. Now he’s filled this role and now he has stepped up and he’s been given these opportunities and he’s making the most of them.”

Through the first two games of the regular season, Clay has caught 10 passes for 163 yards and leads the team in average yards per reception at 16.3. His 109 receiving yards in Sunday’s 24-20 victory over the Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium were the second most by a tight end in franchise history, and his 67-yard catch that set up Miami’s second touchdown was the second longest by a Dolphins tight end.

If Clay’s outings as a receiving tight end in Miami’s first two wins on the road were all there was to evaluate him on, his success in filling Keller’s void could not be questioned. But he is being asked to do a lot more in this offense under offensive coordinator Mike Sherman, like line up in the backfield as a pure blocking fullback on some plays and as an extra protector on passing downs for quarterback Ryan Tannehill.

Against the Colts, Clay branched out to the role of running back and scored a 1-yard touchdown on the first carry of his career. That brought back memories of his college days at Tulsa when he played tailback, fullback, tight end, spit receiver and even a little “Wildcat” quarterback.

“It’s been a while,” said Clay, who now has 44 career receptions for 608 yards and five touchdowns. “I’m fortunate that the coaches put me in good situations, but everybody did a great job contributing. For the most part, (the coaches and everyone) are just saying, ‘Keep improving. Whatever you do, don’t get too high.’ That was the message that they gave me, which is true. It’s only two games into the season and it’s a long season. You don’t want to be playing your best ball right now, you want to keep getting better as the season goes on.”

Clay started nine of the 14 games he played in each of his first two seasons and showed flashes of his potential as a seam threat. During his rookie season when he caught three touchdown passes (two 1-yarders and a 12-yarder), he also had big gains of 46, 31, 30, 29 and 22 yards. Last season, his longest catch went for 31 yards and a touchdown against the Colts on the road and it was his only catch of the game. He saved his best game for home against the Seattle Seahawks when he reeled in six passes for 84 yards, including a 29-yard score.

Blocking happens to be just as important a skill for tight ends, and that’s the one area Clay knew he had to improve on coming into 2013. Despite catching five passes for 54 yards in Miami’s 23-10 win at Cleveland in the season opener, Clay was criticized by Head Coach Joe Philbin for missing a couple of key blocks. Sherman reinforced to Clay the importance of working on all facets of his game and noticed immediate results last week in Indianapolis.

“He’s really done some really nice things in the passing game, but in this last ballgame we really challenged him to be a better blocker and he really contributed in run blocking and also as a pass blocker,” Sherman said. “There was an early pass, it might have been the first pass to Mike Wallace, that they blitzed us and he stepped up and made a huge protection block for us in the “A” gap that allowed us the opportunity to make that play. … He’s definitely playing with a lot of confidence right now and has come into his own and is doing things without any hesitation. I would say in the past maybe he wasn’t 100 percent sure what he was doing, but he’s believing in himself and he’s playing with some confidence.”

The fact that Campbell, in his third year in his current position and fourth overall with the organization, played the game at the highest level as recently as 2009 and won a Super Bowl with the New Orleans Saints only helps Clay and the other young tight ends more. He and Clay clicked from the moment Clay showed up to his first practice as a rookie in 2011 and Clay credits Campbell with being pivotal in his development as far as his footwork and becoming a better in-line blocker, especially since he didn’t do much of that at Tulsa.

Campbell spent 11 seasons in the league with four different teams, starting out with the New York Giants from 1999-2002, then joining the Dallas Cowboys from 2003-05 before playing with the Detroit Lions form 2006-08 and then finally the Saints. He’s been around a lot of tight ends with varying strengths but he sees something unique in Clay.

“This kid, he is special. You name me another tight end in this league that’s like him, that can do everything that he can do,” Campbell said. “You’re going to be hard pressed to find one. There may be some imitators in this league as to that type of player. Charles Clay is a unique player and he’s embraced that. God gave him the skill set but he’s using it. He understands and he knows, ‘My first priority is I’ve got to be able to block. I have to be able to pass protect. I’ve got to be able to run block. I’ve got to be able to run block from the backfield. I’ve got to be able to stretch the field. I’ve got to be able to make releases.’”

“And he’s embraced every one of those roles and that’s why he’s where he’s at right now. He’s hard on himself and he wants to be good. He wants to be great and he works at it each and every day. He doesn’t accept anything less than being the best and that’s why he’s continuing to grow. He’s not topped out yet. He can be so much better and he knows that.”

Quite a scary thought for the 14 opponents remaining on Miami’s schedule this season.

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