Olivier Vernon hopes versatility lands him starting spot

DAVIE— Olivier Vernon's first step is definitely explosive, but the ones that follow his take off are even more impressive.

But we're not talking about this Dolphins defensive lineman's pass rushing repertoire. Vernon's rush skills are still being polished.

What sets Vernon apart from his counterparts on Miami's defensive line is his unique ability to drop back into coverage and run downfield stride-for-stride with tailbacks, tight ends, and even receivers.

The former University of Miami standout did it occasionally during his college career, and in instances during his rookie season with the Dolphins.

But it appears defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle will be turning up the volume, calling on this hybrid player to drop back more in 2013. Coyle continues to install some rather unique blitzes that the defense was experimenting with this offseason.

"I like what we see from him, no question," coach Joe Philbin said of Vernon, whom the Dolphins selected in the third round of last year's draft.

With Jared Odrick moving inside to defensive tackle, Vernon has spent every snap this summer as the Dolphins' starting right side defensive end. His tweener skills have encouraged the coaches to get a little creative.

"The good thing about him is he can put his hand on the ground and he can function. You can put him in a two-point stance and he can function. And then as he grows as a player you can maybe move him around to a couple different spots," Philbin said.

"That creates what we call targeting issues for the offense, and identification issues."

The Dolphins new-look defense is all about creating confusion about roles, assignments and coverages; therefore, versatile players such as Vernon will be the key.

But that's if Vernon manages to keep the starting spot. The Dolphins used a first-round pick to draft Oregon's Dion Jordan, a player with similar tweener skills, and comparable athleticism to Vernon.

Jordan, whom the Dolphins traded up to select third overall, played outside linebacker in Oregon's 3-4 defense, and routinely dropped back into coverage. When he finally joins the Dolphins during training camp, which opens in late-July, Jordan will be moved to defensive end, where he'll compete with Vernon for the starting spot opposite Cameron Wake.

Vernon doesn't seem too concerned about his competition's first-round draft status.

"Everybody will have an opportunity, especially during training camp." said Vernon, who contributed 32 tackles, 3.5 sacks and forced one fumble in his 445 snaps as a rookie. "Whoever is the best fit for the position will have the spot.

"If he can help the team he can help the team. That's what we need. We need guys who can come in and make plays."

But Vernon has no intentions of backing down, nor should he considering pound-for-pound he's one of the best athletes on the roster.

"Olivier did an outstanding job for us as a rookie. He had a tough learning curve but he did an excellent job," defensive line coach Kacy Rodgers said of Vernon, who started just 16 games at UM before leaving after his suspension-shortened junior season.

"When [the coaches] went through the cut ups [of film] in the offseason we felt like we have to get this guy on the field to play more."

Rodgers said Vernon has made "great strides" during the offseason program. He's been working out weekly at the team facility since January, and hasn't taken a break from weight lifting.

As a result he's bulked up to 268 pounds, which he believes will help him set the edge better.

Wake said the biggest improvement Vernon has made is his "football awareness," understanding situations, schemes, formations better. That's an edge he'll have over Jordan, who has missed all of the Dolphins' offseason program because of NFL rules.

"Last year was a welcome to the NFL type situation," Wake said. "Now [Vernon] knows what's going on."

He also knows what to expect.

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