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Kalen Ballage

Kalen Ballage rushing full speed towards Dolphins starting RB job

Kalen Ballage is getting a rare opportunity with Kenyan Drake down with an injury. The Dolphins are going to need a running back, so he’s responding to the call by making play after play. His speed and acceleration caught the Tampa Bay Buccaneers off guard both days they held joint practices, resulting in several touchdowns. That level of production does not go unnoticed, and it’s clear head coach Brian Flores is enjoying noticing them.

“Oh, I saw them.” He said during his Wednesday press conference.

It makes sense that Ballage is pushing himself with Drake out. At the start of training camp, he was the one who worked with the starters, only to eventually be overtaken by the Alabama speedster as the days went on. It appeared that Drake was ready to lock down the starting job, at least until these joint practices with Tampa. All of a sudden, he, QB Josh Rosen and WR Preston Williams are getting chances to work with the starters after being stuck under the veterans.

“I think young guys have to be able to come out here and make plays.” Ballage said Wednesday. “This (isn’t) college anymore. It’s not high school. In my opinion, age doesn’t really matter. I think you just come out here and if you can ball, you can ball. I think that’s a big part of it.”

He’s doing a good job of impressing the coaches, and those touchdown runs included good execution across the board. That’s precisely what coach Flores is looking for in his players.

“They all work together. It’s 11 guys.” He said. “If you put 11 guys in and they execute their responsibility, you’ll get a good play. Kalen did a good job of making a guy miss, and that’s how you get long runs, receivers blocking corners and secondary players, and that’s how you get long runs. It takes everybody.”

At this point, it’s impressive that Kalen Ballage is able to do as much as he’s doing. The Dolphins offensive line is an absolute mess, so these touchdown runs are a testament to the home run capability Ballage has in him. It also acts as a demonstration for what the offense itself is capable of.

“It’s something that I’ve always known.” Ballage said. “I think that it gets the best athletes and the best talents in space, gets them the ball and kind of puts the rest on us to make plays. I think that that’s something that’s real important.”

Ballage’s opportunity to showcase himself stands to last a while, especially since Kenyan Drake has to wear a walking boot for an undisclosed amount of time. While coach Flores isn’t really concerned, indicating Drake will be ready for week one of the regular season at the latest, it doesn’t bode well for Drake with Ballage running full speed towards the starting job.

Kalen Ballage has had his struggles, but they appear to be past him. Back in college, he felt extremely underused. In his rookie season, he sat behind Drake and veteran Frank Gore. He appears ready to take charge, and he has a chance to prove it on Friday.

Chandler Cox

Chandler Cox giving Miami Dolphins much-needed physicality

Think back to the last time the Miami Dolphins had a fullback. More than likely, the name Lousaka Polite springs to mind. Polite was the bruiser, they guy that was given the ball when it was third and short and Miami needed a first down. Unremarkable, but reliable, and steadfast. Since then, the Dolphins have made halfhearted attempts to find a replacement, but not until now, with Chandler Cox, have they add any success.

The last real fullback Miami had on the roster was Jorvorskie Lane. Serviceable, but he never lived up to Polite’s standards. Then the Dolphins tried to get Charles Clay to be an H-back type hybrid, playing both tight end and fulback. It soon became clear that Clay was more effective as a pass-catching tight end. There was also the reported pursuit of veteran fullback Vonta Leach, one of the best at his dying position, back in 2013. Ultimately, nothing came out of that, and since then the position has been in limbo.

Both Joe Philbin and Adam Gase decided to forgo the fullback position for the most part, putting strong emphasis on the passing game. Ryan Tannehill was tasked with making the offense run almost solely on his arm, with little to no investment placed in the running game. Only in 2016, with now free agent RB Jay Ajayi, did anyone get to see what the offense could look like when they started playing smashmouth football. Ajayi became an instant star, and the Dolphins made the playoffs for the first time since 2008.

But it wouldn’t last. Ajayi’s body gave out just as his ego kicked in, and Gase sent Ajayi to the Eagles where he won the Super Bowl in 2017. He didn’t contribute much to that victory, but it was a victory all the same. And once again, Miami’s rushing attack fell by the wayside.

Enter Brian Flores, who comes from New England. The Patriots know how important a strong running game is, and Flores made it clear Miami would remember that lesson. They would have a fullback, no questions asked.

“I think it adds a competitiveness, a grit, a toughness, to the team.” He said back in late May. “We want to run the football. I think having a lead blocker clear the way helps that, I value that position. I think it brings a toughness, a grit that I think I like in my team … Quite honestly, I played linebacker and I’ve had to deal with fullbacks. It’s not always the easiest thing to do. Wherever the league goes is where it goes; but personally, having dealt with a lead blocker, it’s not an easy thing to deal with.”

That much is true. With a fullback leading the way, defenders have to get through an extra player to bring down the running back. In that moment it might take to knock down the fullback, the running back could score a touchdown. That is precisely what happened on Thursday night against the Falcons. Mark Walton was handed the football, and Cox blocked two different defenders, leading to a score that gave Miami the lead.

Chandler Cox already has the respect of his teammates. With fullbacks being a dying breed, the fact he goes out there and does everything he can do to contribute makes him a rarity.

“He’s an Auburn guy, but you know, I won’t hold that against him.” Drake joked on Thursday. “He goes in there, he’s still out there doing his job, so I know he’s going to be tired up in this game, but he’s a rookie so he’s got to get his dues in, so I look forward to him doing a lot more for this season.”

Having a fullback is a luxury it seems, one that most teams decide not to have. With the NFL putting more and more focus on protecting quarterbacks, it’s clear that the league wants teams to throw more. But the effectiveness of a fullback can’t be denied. And some believe the position may yet see a comeback as Miami adjusts to having one.

“I think it will be, but it takes time to do that when you haven’t done that.” running back coach Eric Studesville said in late July. “It’s different to have another guy closer to you and he has to make decisions. There is a trust that builds in that. Chandler (Cox) has done a great job of coming in here. It started yesterday in pads right away. He’s physical with his pad level. We’ll all get better at that and we’ll get better feeling him and what’s going on. I think it adds another dimension to our offense and capabilities and what defenses have to prepare for.”

Chandler Cox adds an extra blocker, and he has the ability to run if necessary. He can catch, he can lead, he can back up the offensive line in the backfield, he’s the full package. And, he’s already adjusting well. Becoming a physical team after spending so long focused on finesse will take time. But Cox will do a lot to speed up the process.