MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- Miami Dolphins running back Kenyan Drake sat at his locker after the game Sunday evening with a glazed look in his eyes. Less than an hour following the biggest play of his pro career -- a 96-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in Miami’s 27-23 win over the New York Jets -- the rookie hadn’t physically recovered.
What most people didn’t notice after Drake’s big return was he had to return to the field on the next play for the kickoff team and run the full length of the field again. Drake also had to play on the punt team a few plays later and run another long stretch.
According to Drake, that series of plays made him “blow chunks.” In other words, he threw up. And you could see the drain in his eyes and face afterward.
“I’m just a little sick after running back and forth on the kickoff return, then the kickoff and the punt,” Drake said. “I’m a little winded still. But hey, that win makes it feel a lot better, I guess.”
It’s fitting that the biggest play of Miami’s season thus far was made by a rookie to get the team back to .500 at the midpoint of the season. Drake is part of a growing trend in Miami, where its rookie class is making a major impact. The Dolphins (4-4) are a young team and must rely on their rookies right away to be successful.
“It’s funny, because this is my 10th year in the league, and when I was coming up, the only people that played as rookies were first- and second-rounders,” Dolphins veteran guard Jermon Bushrod said. “The third-, fourth-, fifth- and sixth-rounders they always tried to hold off. But now the way this league is going, it’s turned into a younger league. Rookies, sometimes it don’t matter what round you’re drafted in, they’re calling your number early.”
That is certainly the case with the Dolphins. Here is a rookie snapshot thus far:
First-round pick Laremy Tunsil was a Day 1 starter. He is part of the team’s best unit -- the offensive line. The left side, made up of Tunsil and veteran left tackle Branden Albert, has been particularly dominant and a big reason running back why Jay Ajayi has 529 rushing yards in the past three games. During the one game Tunsil missed -- a loss to the Tennessee Titans -- the offense played poorly.
Drake was taken in the third round. He has 68 yards rushing and a touchdown. Miami drafted him for his versatility. He also has seven receptions, in addition to Sunday’s kickoff return for a score.
Fellow third-round pick Leonte Carroo has played on offense and special teams. He has two receptions. He filled in for starting wide receiver Kenny Stills on Sunday, when Stills left the game due to illness. Carroo nearly had a long reception when he got open deep, but the ball was overthrown by quarterback Ryan Tannehill.
Sixth-round pick Jakeem Grant already has a punt return for a touchdown against Tennessee. He had another punt return for a score called back on Sunday against the Jets due to a penalty.
Second-round pick Xavien Howard started the first four games for Miami at corner. He was playing well, with 28 tackles and a forced fumble, until he injured his right knee. Howard is expected to return in a few weeks and likely will be the starter again once he’s 100 percent.
“It just goes to show what type of competitors we are,” Carroo said. “We’re going to go out and we’re going to do our best, and it’s not about individual success. It’s about this rookie class doing whatever it takes to win.”
The Dolphins are only halfway through the season, which means this group should only get better. That bodes well for Miami as it tries to make a playoff push in the crowded AFC in the second half of the season.
The Dolphins’ rookies are earning the trust of the coaching staff by making plays and not committing mental and physical errors.
“It doesn’t matter the age. ... We’re expected to play like vets too,” Grant said. “I think this is just a start. There’s no telling how far we can come if we keep working.”