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June 2, 2013
Florida program prepared these three for the NFL
Being a rookie in the NFL is no piece of cake. In addition to carrying oneself like a professional and being in a brand new city with plenty of responsibilities, each player has to get acclimated to his new team, conquer an often daunting playbook and perform well enough on the field to prove that he deserves a roster spot for the upcoming season.
As luck would have it, a trio of former Florida Gators were selected by the Miami Dolphins during the 2013 NFL Draft. Though each still has plenty of obstacles to overcome in the weeks leading up to the start of the season, there is no doubt that taking on these new challenges together has reduced the stress and pressure of the situation.
"It's been great," said linebacker Jelani Jenkins, who was picked by Miami with the No. 104 overall pick in the fourth round. "We got three rookies, and rookie season is not the easiest thing in the NFL. So it's great that we're going through it together. We talk about how lucky we are all the time."
Jenkins and running back Mike Gillislee (fifth round, No. 164 overall), both members of Florida's 2009 recruiting class and teammates for four years with the Gators, are rooming together while off-season workouts are taking place and making the most of it.
"We talk about football all the time," Jenkins said. "I'll ask him what he's looking at as a running back and what I should think about as a linebacker and vice versa. We're trying to get each other through it."
Along with kicker Caleb Sturgis (fifth round, No. 166 overall), Jenkins and Gillislee are also thankful that another former Florida player, center Mike Pouncey, is on the roster. The trio see Pouncey as someone they can emulate on the field and learn from in the locker room.
"We know he has our back. Rookies, us being in our first year, we know we need a veteran like Mike to help us through it," Jenkins said.
Added Gillislee: "He just told me to take notes and go hard when I'm on the football field. I try to take advantage every time I get on the field. I try as hard as I can to show what I can give the team."
A life-long Dolphins fan, Gillislee is a rare player who not only had the opportunity to play for his favorite college team but also wear the jersey of the professional franchise he rooted for as a kid growing up in Deland, FL.
"It feels great to be able to be close to home. I'm only like four hours away from home and a little bit further away from Gainesville," he said. "It's just a great feeling to be able to stay in Florida, especially here with three other former Gators - Jelani, Sturgis and Mike Pouncey. We're just continuing the Gator Nation here and getting to know the rest of our teammates."
Unlike Gillislee, Jenkins grew up cheering for the Washington Redskins. With his father working as a renowned Washington, D.C. architect and his family rooted in Maryland, Jenkins did not start watching the Dolphins until he was in Gainesville, FL and around a bunch of teammates and friends that were Miami fans.
He already feels at home in the city and with the franchise.
"Being drafted here was a good look for me," Jenkins said. "It's so much fun. It's football at the highest level there is. I'm just happy to be out here. I'm enjoying the competition, enjoying just being out here again."
The coaching staff has already begun to respond to Jenkins, who is competing for a starting job but will likely wind up beginning the season as a reserve at linebacker.
At the Dolphins' organized team activity on Tuesday, he was singled out for praise on more than one occasion and even got his hands on a ball for a near-interception. Jenkins credits Gators head coach Will Muschamp and former defensive coordinator Dan Quinn for getting him ready to compete at this level.
"They prepared me very well," he said. "The concepts are different. The wording is different. But in terms of the amount of stuff I have to learn, I had to learn the same amount when Muschamp first came to Florida. It's prepared me very well. I think I'm picking it up fast, and it's helping me out."
Sturgis and Gillislee are also competing for starting jobs this season. While the former will be in a one-on-one competition with veteran Dan Carpenter (whose lackluster 2012 campaign and large contract will likely make him expendable), the latter has a tough task ahead of him.
Miami let Reggie Bush leave as a free agent in the off-season but has a pair of higher-drafted players, Lamar Miller and Daniel Thomas, ahead of Gillislee as of press time. While Gillislee will have to beat out both players to start or at edge least one for regular carries, head coach Joe Philbin said he will have the same opportunity in practice as everyone else on his unit.
"It's just a wide open competition," said Philbin about running back. "We're going to watch the tape and see how our players pick up the blitz, run routes, see how the run the ball when they have the opportunity and go from there." Starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill said Tuesday after OTAs that players getting used to the playbook, conditioning and mental pace of the Dolphins' up-tempo offense will be key to them seeing the field and earning extra snaps.
Gillislee mirrored his quarterback's words just moments later.
"Everything's been going great so far. I'm picking up the offense pretty well and getting to know my teammates better. I'm trying to be even faster than I was in college," he said. "I'm just learning the playbook, trying to be on the field on offense and special teams.
"It's a little bit more advanced with the passing game, the blocking schemes, but I'm feeling good. Every day is a different install, and I'm catching on pretty good."
For a team that has allowed top-tier Florida players to be poached by division-rival New England for the last few years, Miami and its front office have finally begun to take advantage of the wealth of talent located a short drive North.
When the Dolphins' 2013 season kicks off on Sunday, Sept. 8 in Cleveland, OH, four Gators will likely be on the field helping their new team make a legitimate run at a playoff berth for the first time since 2008.
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