Bring­ing pas­sion — and edge

Rizzi drives Dol­phins’ suc­cess on spe­cial teams units.

Sun Sentinel Palm Beach Edition - - FRONT PAGE - [email protected]­

Sure, you know Darren Rizzi. The “ma­ni­a­cal coach,” as he puts it, get­ting in a player’s face on Sun­day. The “crazy’’ spe­cial teams as­sis­tant — again, his word — crum­bling to his knees af­ter a near-miss big play. Even his five kids joke about his, “veins stick­ing out on his neck,” dur­ing a side­line rant, he says.

But you don’t re­ally know Darren Rizzi.

“That’s game-day Rizzi,” as Mi­ami Dol­phins long snap­per John Den­ney says of the wild man.

The other Rizzi, the Mon­dayto-Satur­day Rizzi, might sur­prise you. A typ­i­cal spe­cial teams meet­ing starts with play­ers say­ing, “We need a Lit­tle Johnny story.” Rizzi, you see, has a tal­ent be­yond mak­ing Dol­phins spe­cial teams the one win­ning branch of this team.

He re­mem­bers jokes. Lots of jokes. It’s an odd trait, he ad­mits. But he es­ti­mates to have 200 jokes in his arse­nal. Lit­tle Johnny is the re­cur­ring char­ac­ter in many. Lit­tle Johnny at work. Lit­tle Johnny at school. Lit­tle Johnny does many things that won’t fit in a news­pa­per, but that’s not that point.

“That’s part of the at­mos­phere he cre­ates,’’ says spe­cial teams star Walt Aikens. “He cre­ates a re­laxed at­mos­phere to learn and makes it fun for ev­ery­one. At least if you pay at­ten­tion and know what you’re do­ing, it’s fun. If you don’t do your job, well …”

The Dol­phins’ of­fense and de­fense each rank 29th in the league. Their spe­cial teams are in the top five by var­i­ous mea­sure­ments. There’s the short an­swer, along with be­ing plus-8 on turnovers, for how the Dol­phins are 6-6 and still with a whiff of play­off hope.

For all the talk of finding play­ers on this roster, of re­plac­ing tal­ent again this sea­son, Rizzi did his work. He needed suc­ces­sors for two prime play­ers, Michael Thomas (signed with Gi­ants) and Mike Hull (in­jured), who fin­ished sec­ond- and third- in the spe­cial teams tack­les in 2016 with 19

each. Aikens and Stephone An­thony stepped in nicely.

The head­line void was the kicker. Cody Parkey, who Rizzi grabbed off the trash heap days be­fore the 2017 opener, signed a $16 mil­lion deal with Chicago last off­sea­son. The Dol­phins wouldn’t match. So Rizzi went on the road last off­sea­son, work­ing out six col­lege kick­ers. He brought in two to camp: Ja­son San­ders and Florida At­lantic’s Greg Joseph.

Joseph was cut, but signed on with Cleve­land, fur­ther proof of Rizzi’s eye for tal­ent. San­ders seemed the fur­thest off the grid when the Dol­phins made him a sev­enth-round draft pick. He missed 25 of 35 kicks at New Mex­ico. He worked out with just one other team, the New York Jets, who said they wouldn’t draft him.

Yet San­ders has been money for the Dol­phins, mak­ing 16 of 17 field goals. That in­cluded a 47-yarder to beat Chicago in over­time on the se­ries af­ter Parkey missed a 53-yard at­tempt. That’s one win di­rectly on spe­cial teams.

In a field-po­si­tion win over the New York Jets in Novem­ber, sec­ond-year punter Matt Haack placed seven of his nine punts in­side the Jets’ 20-yard line (Haack has landed a Dol­phins-record 31 punts in­side the 20). Throw in two San­ders field goals in a 13-6 win, and that’s two wins led by spe­cial teams.

Ja­keem Grant re­turned a fourth-quar­ter kick­off 102 yards for the go-ahead points in the sea­sonopener against Ten­nessee. A third win with spe­cial teams as the cen­tral play. Grant went un­touched, too, proof as Denny says, of Rizzi coach­ing ev­ery de­tail, “telling a player what gap to be in, where to place his head, how your role af­fects ev­ery­one else.”

“One-eleventh,” the spe­cial teams play­ers say at the end of meet­ings and in-game hud­dles as a re­minder of their role in a big­ger pic­ture.

It’s not per­fect, Rizzi notes. It never is. But the telling point is spe­cial teams aren’t just mak­ing big plays, as he says, but that, “It hasn’t been onesided. It’s been a lot of dif­fer­ent peo­ple that have af­fected games in dif­fer­ent ways, whether it has been the kicker, the punter, a re­turner, a core player.”

New Eng­land comes to town Sun­day. Rizzi doesn’t need a primer on the chal­lenge. Spe­cial teams are Bill Belichick’s baby. They’re why Rizzi is the Dol­phins spe­cial teams coach, too. He was pro­moted from its as­sis­tant in mid­sea­son in 2010, the day af­ter New Eng­land blocked two kicks and had a 103-yard kick­off re­turn in a Dol­phins melt­down.

Now the only spe­cial teams melt­downs in­volve the coach whose side­line rants are so­cial-me­dia fa­vorites. Call him ma­ni­a­cal or crazy for his Sun­day looks. But call him ef­fec­tive, too. His units are the one area the Dol­phins win this year.

Dave Hyde

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