DAVIE, Fla. — For several Miami Dolphins draft picks, there is only the desire to prove they belong.
Miami general manager Dennis Hickey took an unconventional route at the draft, tapping into several FCS schools to fill team needs.
In April, 12 NFL teams used at least one pick to select a player from an FCS school. The Dolphins used five of eight. The only other franchises to use more than one pick to draft FCS players were the St. Louis Rams and Minnesota Vikings, who selected two each.
Offensive lineman Billy Turner, defensive back Walt Aikens, linebacker Jordan Tripp, receiver Matt Hazel and defensive lineman Terrence Fede all shared the same moment during the draft weekend, wondering if their college careers would pan out into NFL opportunities despite being in the shadows.
"It was always a question in my mind, am I going to get the opportunity to play at the next level?" Tripp admitted. "It was always a goal and dream of mine."
But the chip-on-the-shoulder attitude about being overlooked is no longer necessary for these athletes. For Hickey and the Dolphins, it has never been about where players come from, just that they fill team needs through leadership and a skillset that shows upside.
"Whether you’re an FBS player or FCS player, we got here," Tripp said. "We all share the same common goal, the game of football. We all love it. Whether you’re from LSU or from Liberty University, we’re [all] playing for the Miami Dolphins and we’re going to represent that organization and do it to the best of our ability."
As those players took the field for their first day of rookie minicamp, thinking about the roundabout path to the NFL hardly factored into the discussion. The focus is on the future.
Fede, Miami’s seventh-round pick and the first player ever drafted out of Marist College, said he and his new teammates talked about their experiences but are more excited about their opportunities.
"We all know we came from small schools, but that’s in the past," Fede said. "We’re all here now. We’re starting with a clean slate, and now we just need to start working and get on the same, level playing field."
Friday, that meant running through positional drills and putting classroom work and film study into practice.
Miami’s picks — including offensive lineman Ja’Wuan James, receiver Jarvis Landry and tight end Arthur Lynch — took part in full-squad drills with free-agent signees and players trying out. They were pulled aside for individual work with coaches.
In team situations, those players, many of whom were captains at the collegiate level, stepped up to guide their peers.
"I think that’s something that can be looked upon in our organization," Turner said. "They want leaders to come in here, and yeah, we are rookies, but we like to think of ourselves as leaders among the guys in this rookie class."
Perhaps because of not having experienced the routine of FBS or BCS programs, players such as Fede, Turner and Tripp all noted having some adjustments to make, but they said they have grown more comfortable in the 10 days they’ve spent at the Dolphins facility.
"The speed’s a little bit different," Fede said. "It’s a lot slower [in college]. But once you get on the field, the speed bumps up. But as a whole defense, we’re adjusting to it and moving on just fine."
Turner, who played in a system at North Dakota State similar to what the Dolphins use, said it is a matter of learning Miami’s terminology.
"It’s like if you never spoke Spanish before and you’re speaking English going to that," Turner said. "But the good thing is, you do all the same things. I’ve done all the same things in college, you’ve just got to think of the different terms."
"There’s definitely levels to it in terms of complexity and speed, but at the end of the day, it’s the game you love," Tripp said. "Going from college to the NFL, the speed is more. When you get outside of this rookie camp, you’re going to see guys that are Pro Bowlers and they’re faster, stronger, bigger, smarter."
At that point, small school or not, there won’t be any time for these rookies to look back.