When it comes to fans of the Miami Dolphins, one common cry from the masses in year’s past has been, “Why don’t we give (the starting running back) more carries?”
Since Ricky Williams retired, the Dolphins either didn’t seem to have a running back capable of a 30-carry game, or the coaching staff simply didn’t trust the players, either health-wise or ability-wise, to give one guy a workhorse load.
This isn’t lost on current running back Jay Ajayi, who compiled the fourth-highest rushing total in the NFL last year despite only seeing the ball an average of 17 times per game.
“Knowing what we kind of want to do this year, and knowing myself and how I felt in some of the games where I was able to get into rhythm and get over 20 carries, I felt we were able to do well”, Ajayi said on Tuesday. “And in those games that I got to a certain amount of carries, that was when our offense was doing the best.”
Head coach Adam Gase has taken note of Ajayi’s preparedness this offseason. Ajayi actually spent time working with quarterback Ryan Tannehill and the receivers earlier this Spring (more on that below), and Gase notes that his understanding of the game has increased exponentially.
“It’s slowed down for him a lot from where we were last year compared to where we are right now,” Gase said. “The questions he brings up to us are very detailed. Really beyond next level questions; they’re really quarterback-ish questions. I love the way his intrigue of what’s going on at his position has been outstanding.”
And in case anyone was wondering if the Dolphins would have a running-back-by-committee approach, something that has become common across the league in recent years, Gase put that one to rest in his typical blunt manner.
“(Ajayi) wants to be a guy that can be counted on for second and third down,” said Gase. “He does not want to come off the field. Everyone gets concerned with the amount of carries and his physical style of running. And we’ll handle that as we go. But I love the mentality that he has right now. He wants to be a guy that’s relied upon right now. He’s our bell cow running back. At the same time he’s our top third-down guy, and red area, and two-minute guy. He wants to be the guy that no matter what the situation is we’ll have him in the game.”
The take from all that? Well, it sounds like the Dolphins will try pretty hard to get Ajayi more carries this year. And you can bet he welcomes the task.
“I’m ready for that,” Ajayi said. “That’s what I’m preparing myself to do. So we’ll see happens this year as the season comes up. Each game plan each week could be different but I know for myself personally I’ll be ready to carry the ball however many times I have to. I feel like I’m a workhorse, and I get better as the game keeps going and I continue to be a part of the game. So yeah, I feel like if I continue to get certain amount of carries, that will be good for our team as well.”
Already known as a good receiver out of the backfield coming out of Boise State, Ajayi wanted to improve in that area and give the team more confidence in utilizing him on third down plays. So he’s gone out of his way to improve in the passing game.
“My rookie year I had a lot on my plate,’ he said. “I was just trying to figure out what I was doing, learning how to be a pro and everything. But right now, having a couple years under my belt, knowing what I want to be; I want to be the best - I strive for that. I know that to be considered the best at the running back position, you have to be a guy that can do it all.
"Last year, I was able to do a lot of great things on the ground, but I felt like something was missing in my game. I knew I could do it, so I just wanted to be able to come out and practice and continue to work at it, continue to show that I can do it and be consistent. Just being able to run better routes and being more detailed, that was a priority for me this offseason."
“He's really spent a lot of time on that,” notes Gase. “A lot of it is to his credit because he's done it when he wasn't around here. I'm going to say he must have spent a ton of time with his routes on his own and catching the ball. The guys he was working with, whether it was Ryan (Tannehill) or the other quarterbacks … he really must have spent a lot of time because he is on every little detail and way more comfortable catching the ball.”
And Gase says his bell cow running back isn’t satisfied with just doing something well – he strives for perfection on every play.
“He's very hard on himself,” Gase said. “Even if he slightly bobbles a ball, it'll almost ... You have to de-compress him a little bit because you don't want him to be as angry as he gets because he's striving for perfection so hard. We've been talking about, 'Hey, when something like that happens, we've got to move on to the next play and we've got to clear the conscience and move on and learn from that experience.' As we've gone through this, he's done a better job of even that, of trying to make sure if he has a slight hiccup somewhere, 'I'm moving on to the next thing.'”
As for where Ajayi spent his time, we’ll just turn to the quarterback.
"Yes, Jay put in time, starting back in March with us,” says Tannehill. “We had the receivers out there. Jay came back in town. He was in California training for a while. He came back and was out there working with us. I've seen him take particular care in his routes and have an effort into each route. I see him run around and he'll come back and talk to me 'Hey, what did you think about here?' If he doesn't like the way he ran it, he'll run another one. With running backs a lot of times, those things can get overlooked as far as the details of route running and being that weapon, but I think he wants to expand his role in this offense. We use our backs out of the backfield a lot. I think it's a big weapon for us and he's a guy that can do it. He catches the ball well. He understands concepts well and so it's something that we look to get him the ball a lot this year out of the backfield."
How detailed is Ajayi with his route running work?
“For starters, knowing your landmarks,” he says about what he pays most attention to. “Certain routes need to be broken off at certain yard lines. There are so many yards in each route. Really just making sure that when I do get into my breaks that I'm getting out of it sharply, not rounding my breaks, and at the end of the route, finishing the catch.”
This story was written by Eldon Jenson. Follow him on Twitter @EJFootball
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