Young Players Gave Coaches An Eyeful At Scrimmage

Posted Jul 31, 2013

Francis, Gray And McCray among those who stood out on Monday night.

All undrafted rookies and first-year players understand training camp is about making an impression every chance they get.

Defensive tackle A.J. Francis, running back Jonas Gray and safety Kelcie McCray did just that during the Dolphins’ intrasquad scrimmage at Sun Life Stadium Monday night. Those three were among a large group of players who stood out. But while other scrimmage standouts like Olivier Vernon, Reshad Jones and Ryan Tannehill can reasonably assume their roster spot is secure, Francis, Gray and McCray need to stand out.

The scrimmage was a good place to give Head Coach Joe Philbin and his staff an eyeful.

“Every time I come out and sacrifice my body and go out and play, I’ve got to give it my all,” Gray said after the team’s walk-through Wednesday. “Before the scrimmage, Coach Philbin talked about how important it was for a number of guys and Coach Sherman (offensive coordinator Mike Sherman) echoed those same things, so I knew I had to come out right away and play with full speed, play with detail and play physical.”

Gray, a first-year player from Notre Dame, carried the ball four times for 13 yards during the scrimmage and also caught two passes for 13 yards. His best play was a 9-yard run against the first-team defense, a play where Gray showed off his power. He did the same thing when he pushed the pile into the end zone for a 3-yard touchdown run.

Francis, a rookie from the University of Maryland, made his presence felt as a pass rusher. He had a would-be sack — defensive players weren’t allowed to tackle quarterbacks — and later batted down a pass at the line of scrimmage.

McCray, meanwhile, made the biggest play of the scrimmage when he stepped in front of a receiver running a slant, made the interception and sprinted about 50 yards for a touchdown.

“It was a gift,” McCray said. “It was a great disguise by not only me, but the nickel and the safety as well. It just fell into place. My immediate reaction was, get down, but I saw 50 yards of wide open field, and it was hard to resist.

“It was huge. That’s the time in the game where somebody needs to make a play. It was definitely a big point in the scrimmage.”

For McCray and Gray, the scrimmage represented their most significant action in almost 18 months.

McCray spent all of his rookie season in 2012 on injured reserve after sustaining a foot injury in the early days of camp. Gray, for his part, spent the whole season on the PUP/NFI Reserve list as he continued to work his way back from a torn ACL he sustained in 2011 while a senior at Notre Dame.

“I remember talking to the guys after the scrimmage, it was my first live contact since November of 2011,” Gray said. “It felt good to just go around there and play physical and mentally it’s really good for my knee to just know it’s 100 percent, back to where I need to be and I’m just going to continue to work.”

For Francis, the strong scrimmage showing was a major relief after what he described as a couple of sub-par practices on his part.

“It felt good,” Francis said. “It’s hard to say, but practice is different than a game. A lot of young guys, myself included, in practice start thinking too much and they start worrying too much and then you get out there in a scrimmage and game format and you just let yourself play. I had a pretty good first week and then last couple of days before the scrimmage, I didn’t have my best days, so I wanted to get back to playing well. I had a pretty good scrimmage. I felt like it got a weight off my shoulders.”

That said, Francis knows he needs to have a lot more days like Monday night to earn a roster spot.

Francis, just like McCray and Gray, isn’t looking that far ahead. His focus right now is on trying to improve and absorbing as much knowledge as he can from the Dolphins’ established players at his position — Paul Soliai, Randy Starks and Jared Odrick.

“These guys are good,” Francis said. “One thing that goes underrated is a lot of guys think that just because you’re on a team that has a bunch of really good guys it hurts your chances. It made do that, but it also helps you. I have three of the best D-linemen in the NFL teaching me technique. Odrick is teaching me about my strike; Randy is teaching me about pass rush moves; and Paul is teaching me how he uses leverage at nose, even though he’s so tall. (They’re) teaching me these techniques that I can use myself, so it helps a lot.”

For McCray, Gray and Francis — along with the rest of the Dolphins’ young players — the next big opportunity to shine comes Sunday night in the preseason opener against the Dallas Cowboys in the Hall of Fame Game in Canton, Ohio.

Even though there’s work to be done before then, including the night practice on Wednesday, there clearly is a sense of anticipation and excitement.

“Words can’t even explain because it’s really my first NFL game since I didn’t play in the preseason last year,” McCray said. “ I’m super excited. I got some family and friends coming to see me up in Canton. I’m super excited.”

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