Many Miami Dolphins fans know about linebacker Chris McCain. As an undrafted linebacker from the University of California, he made an immediate impact in the first game last season, a 33-20 season opening win over the New England Patriots, when he blocked a punt and had a critical sack.
And who can forget McCain playing the intimidator role in the game against the Chicago Bears, when he (literally) flung former Bears (current Jets) wide receiver Brandon Marshall away from a scrum, immediately endearing himself to Dolphins fans everywhere.
But the rest of McCain’s season was relatively quiet. Although he was one of the top players in training camp and made the 53-man roster early in the preseason, there were several reasons for his lack of involvement throughout the season.
"I was really struggling with the playbook coming from the Pac 12, where there are a lot of spread schemes. We were running a 3-4, I didn't have too (many) responsibilities, so I thought it was going to be easy like it was in college," McCain admitted. Add to that the fact that defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle's scheme is highly complex, often switching from a 3-4 to a 4-3 alignment, and the numerous audibles and adjustments can be intimidating for a first year player.
"I just didn't prepare myself the way I should have. I'm switching that up this year, and it's becoming a lot more simple. Last year I was kind of quiet. I was probably thinking a little bit too much. My preparation and my understanding of the defense is my biggest improvement. I believe I (now) have the physical aspects of the game (figured out)."
It also helps that head coach Joe Philbin has told Coyle to simplify the defense, making it easier for young players like McCain to be more impactful. McCain admits that this change alone is allowing him to play more freely.
“It's not too much on us this year, we're not thinking a lot and don't have too (many) responsibilities," he said. "It's going to impact the defense very well because we have a lot of ballers this year. And the less you think, the more you can become great."
In 2014, a death in McCain’s family impacted him early, and he then fought an ankle injury midway through the season. When he was finally healthy, Dion Jordan had returned from his six-game suspension, and the Dolphins gave the edge linebacker role to Jordan, the team's 2013 first-round pick.
Jordan is suspended again, this time for the entire season, and McCain has been penciled in as Jordan's replacement. He's also learning the strong side linebacker spot, which became open after Philip Wheeler was released this offseason. In addition to the linebacker duties, McCain is also lining up as a defensive end in some situations. And he’s learning them all well.
"I had to develop a little bit,” said McCain. “I'm understanding it now, so I'm ready to rock and roll. I really am that guy who goes and gets it when I see it. I have to slow down because if it's a play action, I might bite too much. The balance has to come in with my eyes. I have to be patient.”
McCain also praises the current linebacker corps, which includes four undrafted rookies.
“A lot of people out there second guess us, but they don't know what we've got in that (linebacker) room," McCain said. "I just have to keep grinding and keep showing them I deserve that starting spot."
At 6’5” and 250 pounds, McCain admits his challenge this month is to put on some weight without losing some of his quickness.
"I can't get too big because I don't want to lose my speed," said McCain, who is now 15 pounds lighter than his college playing weight. "I want to add a little bit of girth to take on more impact. I want to be an unstoppable linebacker. I want to be able to cover anybody that I have to guard or line up against. If I blitz, I want to be able to beat any tackle that tries to touch me, or guard if I have to go underneath."
McCain is quickly establishing himself as a fan favorite in Miami, and those fans will be happy to see him build on his rookie experiences and continue to have an impact this season. If he does, and the linebacking corps is as strong as McCain suggests, the Dolphins could very well have one of the strongest defenses in the NFL.
This story was written by Eldon Jenson. Follow him on Twitter @EJFootball.
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