He stands on the field, behind the secondary as the Miami Dolphins defense puts in work during offseason training activities. Arms folded, eyes alert, intently scanning everything that’s going on around him, the Ivy League alumnus (Dartmouth) reflects a calm air of confidence, a persona that commands respect.
And Miami Dolphins defensive coordinator Matt Burke does indeed have the respect of his players, who value, among other things, the fact that Burke brings continuity to a defense that hopes to improve immensely from the bottom-ranked showing of last season.
And how is he adjusting to his new role, after taking over when Vance Joseph left to become head coach in Denver?
“It’s crazy, I just stand there and I don’t know what to do with myself,” said Burke while laughing. “My hands moving. It’s hard. It’s just a different relationship with the players. Interaction with the players, that’s been different. I’m a very hands-on coach. When I was with the linebackers, I’m in there and I’m all with it and stuff. So it’s a little different being slightly removed from that. You kind of train your eyes from a different spot, seeing the whole field as opposed to in practice we’re watching a play and I’m watching the linebackers. Now I have to see everybody. If a mistake happens out here, I have to be on top of that too. It’s been hard just sort of shifting my focus in terms of that stuff.”
But as he adjusts to the new role, Burke offered a few insights into what he’s seeing in this defense so far this summer. So before we find out about Burke’s ‘wild’ side that was alluded to in the headline, here are a few nuggets from camp.
On moving players around into different positions in camp:
“It’s a benefit if we can have players that are playing multiple positions and have the depth that maybe we haven’t had there in the past that we can … If we’ve got four or five ends that we’re rolling through and working in different spots, we can week-to-week – what the matchups dictate – use them there.”
On cornerback Bobby McCain and the development of the nickel slot position:
“Bobby started every game for us last year. Bob’s had a good spring. He really has. He’s competing. He has the - whether you call it the fortune or misfortune - of going against one of the best slot receivers (Jarvis Landry) every day. For us, it’s obviously a great evaluation tool to see him compete against Jarvis. He’s been holding his own. One of the benefits for us last year of playing a lot of those young guys – Bobby, ‘Lipp’ (Tony Lippett), I mentioned Neville (Hewitt) and Mike Hull and those guys – they’ve all taken that next step because they got so much playing time last year.”
On the progress of the linebacking corps:
“They’ve done a good job, honestly. We’ve been moving those guys like we said we would and just trying to get different combinations. Again, some of playing linebacker is playing with each other and getting used to Kiko (Alonso) getting used to what Lawrence (Timmons) is going to do next to him and having a rookie (Raekwon McMillan) in the mix. Mike Hull and Neville (Hewitt) have both taken some big steps for us.
"We’re really trying to work those groups and just try to find the best fit, but also get those guys comfortable playing with each other. Again, for me, having a more versatile ability to have different packages and move those guys around a little bit, they’re good. They’re all working really hard. (Assistant Head Coach/Linebackers Coach) Frank (Bush) has done a good job with them. It’s probably harder on him - that was my room, so I’m probably harder on Frank and try to put a lot on those guys to do that now and find out how we can utilize them. It’s good. It’s coming along.”
As for any obscure players that are making their presence known in camp and/or surprising the coaches?
“(Safety) ‘Mo’ (Maurice) Smith has done a pretty solid job. He’s a headsy player and he’s another guy where we’re moving around a little bit, and he’s been able to sort of take to that to some extent. I thought (defensive tackle Davon) Godchaux is actually showing a little bit. He’s got some power in his body.
"He’s another guy that’s a real worker. He doesn’t say three words to me, he just goes out and does everything every day. I see him really watching (Ndamukong) Suh and those guys and trying to just puppy dog him and follow him around and do what he does. In terms of the rookie class, obviously besides the top couple picks, those are two guys that have definitely kind of shown a little bit.”
Now for another side of Burke that isn’t typically found in the 24/7/365 lives of NFL coaches.
Burke spent time during the 2015 and 2016 offseasons in Africa. He has climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, gone on a safari in Botswana, and has visited and performed charity work in Uganda.
“I went to Uganda two years ago … to do some missionary work with Jeremiah Washburn and his family. That same year I went and hiked Mount Kilimanjaro afterwards. I went to Tanzania. Then last summer, we actually went to South Africa and Botswana and Zambia and did some safari stuff and trekking around there.”
And his plans this offseason?
“I’m going to Uganda to hike with mountain gorillas.”
Yeah, this guy’s not your typical coach.
The day after the Dolphins minicamp concludes this month, Burke will pack about 30 pounds of clothing and gear (he’s allowed 15 kilograms on the small bush plane that transport him) and head into a mountainous area where only about 700 mountain gorillas survive in their natural habitat.
“It’s just going to be me and my girlfriend,” says Burke. “We’re flying through Amsterdam, so we’re taking a few days there just to break the trip up. It’s about an 11-hour flight from Amsterdam down to Entebbe, Uganda, and then we’re (there) for about nine or 10 days. You have to get permits and a lot of stuff to do this, so we’re basically spending time at this place called Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. It’s up in the mountains on the Western border of Uganda. There is a base camp lodge that we’re staying at that has about seven little cabins out on a ridge on the side of a mountain. You go out during the day and you track the gorillas and get to sort of witness them in their natural habitat.”
And just in case you’re wondering what head coach Adam Gase thinks about his defensive coordinator out gallivanting with gorillas:
“Adam told me if I die over there he’s going to come and kill me twice.”
This story was written by Eldon Jenson. Follow him on Twitter @EJFootball
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