Dolphins Take Practice Squad Players Seriously

Posted Nov 21, 2013

Brenner is the latest example of Miami’s deep talent pool.

Every NFL team looks at its practice squad differently, with some treating it as mostly an emergency reserve in the event of injury and others using it truly as a developmental tool. Count the Miami Dolphins among the latter.

So far this season, Miami already has promoted three players from its practice squad to the active roster – guard Sam Brenner, safety Jordan Kovacs and wide receiver Ryan Spadola. Brenner made the leap to starter at left guard last Sunday against the San Diego Chargers and his life changed dramatically in the span of less than 24 hours.

“These guys worked hard every single day,” Head Coach Joe Philbin said. “A guy like Brenner comes to work, not many guys know about him. He’s been working his tail off since he came with us last spring. When you watch him perform you can see the development. Even though he’s not running a lot of Miami stuff during the course of these previous nine weeks, you can see him develop. You can see the fundamentals, he plays hard, the guy is a football player and he likes to play. He’s done a good job.”

Philbin and his coaching staff make a concerted effort to treat the practice squad players as equals, working them into all of the drills and getting them important reps at their respective positions while also making sure they are getting out of them what they need to from a scout team perspective. These eight players are tasked with giving the regulars the look of that week’s opposition in order to better help them prepare, but they have to learn their own system at the same time.

So to the casual observer, it’s not easy to distinguish the active players from the practice squad guys at a Dolphins practice, unlike in other places where during warm-ups and individual drills you’ll find their practice squad huddled together. That difference in approach has not been lost on Brenner and the others.

“I came in here as an undrafted free agent and a relative nobody you could say,” said Brenner, who jumped right into the fray after starting center Mike Pouncey was ruled out with an illness and played the entire game, including one snap at center. “Then here I am practicing with Mike Pouncey and Tyson Clabo and Bryant McKinnie, these long-time vets, and they welcomed me into the fold and you become one of them. You become one of the team and even though you are on the practice squad it’s a welcoming environment.”

Kovacs was the first member of the practice squad to get promoted back on October 5th, the day before the home game against the Baltimore Ravens. He stayed on the active roster for the rest of the month, was waived on November 11th and rejoined the practice squad the next day.

Taking the road less traveled is nothing new to Kovacs. He went from being a walk-on at the University of Michigan who had to beg for a second tryout after being turned down for medical reasons the first time to starting safety, team captain and MVP as a senior. So this practice squad carousel has been a piece of cake.

“I think with the practice squad it’s important to understand your role on the team and it’s to make the team better through practice,” Kovacs said. “It’s to give them great looks and to give them the best look that you can. At the end of the day you know that you’re just a play away from being bumped up, so that obviously is fulfilling to be able to be bumped up. It encourages you to give great looks and I think that this is an organization that’s kind of unique and gives you an opportunity as a practice squad player to get bumped up right away.”

Spadola began the season with the New York Jets on their active roster and was active for three of their first four games before being released and then picked up by Miami in mid-October. After starting wide receiver Brandon Gibson was lost for the season with a knee injury suffered at New England on October 27th, he was promoted and activated for the Dolphins’ 22-20 overtime win on Halloween against the Cincinnati Bengals.

All three of these players are proud to represent the entire eight-man squad that now consists of Kovacs, Spadola, wide receiver Jasper Collins, linebacker Josh Kaddu, defensive tackle Al Lapuaho, tight end Kyle Miller, wide receiver Nathan Palmer and offensive tackle Jason Weaver. Kovacs, Spadola and Brenner are living and breathing examples of the ultimate payoff.

“We’ve seen it happen with a handful of guys and that is encouraging because you know they’re always watching,” Kovacs said. “A lot of the guys on the team don’t even know who’s on practice squad and who’s on the 53-man and we’ve changed it up quite a bit. But I think that is something that’s unique to the organization and it’s pretty neat to be able to play practice squad and be bumped up and the next week you’re out there on the 53-man roster playing in front of 50,000 people or so.”
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