MIAMI GARDENS — It’s a circle Dolphin coaches hope will never be broken.
A young player arrives, raw, eager to learn, and a veteran steps forward and becomes his mentor. It happened when Jason Taylor taught Cam Wake how to play outside linebacker three years ago, and it’s happening again now with Wake and rookie defensive end Olivier Vernon.
“I remember Koa (Misi) doing the same thing (Vernon) is doing now a couple years ago,” Wake said. “Coming to me and asking, ‘What are the packages?’ ‘What do I do when they do this?’ I want to pass on my wisdom as much as I can, and help him utilize the assets he has.”
Vernon was about as raw as a rookie can get when he arrived as a third-round pick out of the University of Miami last summer. Leaving UM after his junior year, he took Wake as his role model at the defensive end position and, with his playing time limited early this season, has watched and learned.
“When I’m on the sidelines during a game I just look at him and I’m like, ‘Man, how did you do that?’ ” Vernon said. “He gives me some pointers and I try to apply it.”
Wake said their size similarity — Wake is 6-foot-3, 258 pounds while Vernon is 6-2, 268 — means they face similar challenges in getting to the quarterback.
“We’re that ‘Too big to be a linebacker, too small to be a defensive end’ size,” he said. “You’ve got to have a mentality every time you step on the field and you’re giving up 80 pounds to an offensive lineman. You’ve got to be able to say, ‘I don’t give a blankety-blank how big you are, I’m just as strong, and powerful, and explosive.’ And he has that.”
Vernon impressed General Manager Jeff Ireland in a workout prior to the draft, but was still surprised when the Dolphins, who were switching from a 3-4 defensive scheme to a 4-3, selected him.
“I could have sworn I was going to a 3-4 team, because every team I met with was playing a 3-4 scheme,” he said. “So when I came to the Dolphins and heard (they were playing) a 4-3, I was like, ‘All right, cool, I’ll put my hand back in the dirt.’
“But the coaches have given me a little leeway with a two-point stance. I feel a lot more comfortable in a two-point stance (standing up).”
Vernon’s ability to get to the passer from the early days of offseason workouts impressed not only Wake (“he was chasing Ryan Tannehill all over the field&rdquo
but also defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle, who recognized that underneath the unpolished exterior was an athlete with the size, strength and quickness to consistently pressure passers.
“It’s an ongoing process … but just using the natural speed he had, he was able to excel with some of the rushes he would use in college,” Coyle said.
“(Then) he started to realize he has to continue to develop his repertoire of pass rush moves. (Defensive line coach) Kacy Rodgers does as good a job as anybody in the league coaching those defensive linemen. Now you’re seeing a guy who’s going to be an impact guy from here on out.”
Vernon had five tackles in his first five games including a half-sack against the New York Jets, but his coming-out party was the Oct. 14 game against St. Louis, when his four tackles included two sacks of Sam Bradford. Among Dolphin rookies, only A.J. Duhe (1977) and Marco Coleman (1992) have had more in a game.
Vernon said watching Wake haul down Bradford earlier in the game inspired him.
What made that day even more special is that his father, Lascelles, a Miami Beach police officer, and mother, Bernadette, were in attendance, as they have been at all his games since his days at American High School in Miami. He was heavily recruited by Alabama and Florida State, but family ties led to the decision to stay home and play with the Hurricanes. Now he makes his living not 10 minutes from where he grew up.
“I grew up on 199th Street, so when I went to middle school the bus would pass (Sun Life) stadium every day,” he said. “To play there now, it’s crazy.”