Vernon Ready To Build On Solid Rookie Campaign

Posted Feb 12, 2013

Miami native made big strides on defense and special teams.

Olivier Vernon felt right at home the moment he showed up for the Miami Dolphins’ rookie minicamp last May. That’s because he was home, just a short drive from his parents’ house and close to where he starred at the University of Miami.

By season’s end, the rookie defensive end who was taken with the first of two third-round picks in the 2012 NFL Draft showed enough promise as a pass rushing defensive end and a solid special teams contributor to earn praise from his teammates and coaches alike. His speed and athleticism paid dividends in the form of 3.5 sacks, a forced fumble and 32 tackles (25 solo) and he feels like he only scratched the surface.

“I learned a lot during the season as a rookie and I know there’s more that I can learn about and I can continue to grow,” Vernon said. “Everybody says your biggest jump is from your first to the second year so I want to exceed expectations, especially for myself.”

There was a clear method to defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle’s decision to have Vernon shadow veteran defensive end Cameron Wake early on and the coach and the player understood that method. Wake and Vernon are similar in build and share a similar skill set, primarily a quick first step off the line of scrimmage.

Coyle began working Vernon into the regular defensive rotation early in the season, but it was the Week 6 home game against the St. Louis Rams when the former Hurricane had his breakout game. He sacked Rams quarterback Sam Bradford twice in the second half, the last one with 37 seconds left. That pushed St. Louis out of realistic field goal range, though Greg Zuerlein tried a 66-yarder that missed, and Vernon had validated what Coyle and Wake already knew.

“From the first day he stepped on the field he’s been making plays and doing great things,” said Wake, who made it to his second Pro Bowl in three years after notching a career-high 15 sacks. “I’ve seen things that he’s done, running around chasing Tannehill and going against Jake Long in practice and I have no doubt in my mind that he can get it done.”

Growing up within shouting distance of Sun Life Stadium, it almost seemed as if Vernon was preordained to play for the Dolphins. He even attended one of the team’s youth football camps while in middle school, but soccer was his first love. Vernon didn’t give football a try until high school at Miami American High down the road from his house.

Success on the high school gridiron led to a scholarship at the University of Miami. He had to serve a six-game suspension his last year and expected his draft stock to take a small hit. But more importantly he was also concerned with how those six missed games would impact his development. He wants to make up ground in that area.

“The game is still new to me even though I played college football,” Vernon said. “It’s totally different at the next level. There are so many different things you have to learn. I’m looking forward to next season. I wish it could start already because there’s not much to do in the offseason.”

In addition to his two-sack performance against the Rams, Vernon also had his fair share of highlights on special teams. In fact, his first one came in the very next game following the bye on the road at the New York Jets.

He was in the right place at the right time early when Jimmy Wilson broke through the line and blocked a punt, as the ball bounced right into Vernon’s arms in the end zone for a touchdown. Right near the end of the first half he got airborne and blocked Nick Folk’s 35-yard field goal attempt to keep the momentum on Miami’s side in a 30-9 rout.

“I would say the touchdown was the most memorable moment of the season because the last time I had a touchdown was probably in high school,” said Vernon, who showed stamina by playing special teams and regular snaps on defense. “It was a fun game because everyone was having a good time and dancing. It wasn’t just me making a play, it was everybody around me making plays so that was probably the most memorable game for me.”

As far as what Vernon will remember most about his rookie season, it’s the bond he formed with Wake and how much he was able to learn from the two-time Pro Bowl selection. The two actually became fans of each other as the season progressed.

“This whole offseason I’m probably going to be working out with him the whole time trying to learn as much as I can from him,” Vernon said. “Anything to help me get better I’m going to do. I know he has a whole lot to offer and he’s a really good teacher, so whatever I can grab and any kind of knowledge I can get from him, I’m going to be annoying to him and I’m going to be bugging him the whole time.”

Vernon grew close to all of his fellow defensive linemen and learned from Randy Starks, Jared Odrick, Tony McDaniel and Paul Soliai in addition to Wake. That unit did everything together. Vernon described a strong camaraderie that developed among them, as proven by the vacation they all took together right after the season ended to the Dominican Republic.

But without a doubt the best part of playing his rookie season in Miami was being able to see his parents on a regular basis. He even got to join them after a few home games in the parking lot and finish off tailgating with his father’s famous cooking.

“When I come home we don’t really talk about football so I never really asked them what it was like this year,” Vernon said. “At first it was so surreal, especially to my mom because I don’t think she ever thought that was going to happen. I know they’re happy and they’re proud and I’ve just got to keep representing their name on my back.”

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