NFL: Dolphins have become 'Utah East'
Davie, Fla. • In a game last month at Cincinnati, Miami Dolphins cornerback Nolan Carroll was shaken up early in the second half and went to the bench. So in came backup R.J. Stanford.
Suddenly, Dolphins defenders looked around. Nearly half of the guys in the huddle had played their college ball at Utah.
"Sean Smith said, 'Hey we got Utah in here. We have all five Utah guys in here,' '' Stanford said of Smith, a Dolphins cornerback and once his teammate on the Utes. "We gave each other head nods and high-fives. It was a good moment.''
For two series against the Bengals, until Carroll was able to return, Stanford and Smith were joined on the field by defensive tackle Paul Soliai, linebacker Koa Misi and defensive end Derrick Shelby. Of the 15 Utes active in the NFL this season, those five are all on the Dolphins.
Miami had three on the team last year in Smith, Misi and Soliai, who made his first Pro Bowl. They were joined this season by Shelby, signed as an undrafted rookie free agent, and Stanford, who arrived the week before the regular season began after being waived by the Carolina Panthers.
"Everybody was joking around,'' Misi, who played for Utah from 2007-09, said of the reaction after the arrival of Stanford, a Ute from 2006-09. "Everybody was saying, 'What has this turned into, a Utah team?' It was kind of funny. Even the coaches were talking about how, 'We got all these Utah guys coming in here.' ''
At the Dolphins training facility in Davie, camp began last July with Soliai and Misi by choice having lockers next to each other. While Soliai had played for the Utes in 2005-06, before Misi arrived, the two became close friends after Misi joined the Dolphins in 2010.
When Stanford showed up in South Florida, a Dolphins staff member, with no apparent realization where Stanford played in college, assigned him a stall next to where Soliai and Misi dress. So three of the Utes now occupy one corner.
"They should just map off a section of the locker room and put us all over there,'' said Shelby, who played for Utah from 2008-11 and has a locker on the other side of the room, not far Smith, a Ute from 2006-08.
Dressing next to the three Utah players is center Mike Pouncey, who played at Florida under Urban Meyer. Considering Meyer coached Utah from 2003-04, Pouncey likes to give all of the Dolphins' Utes a hard time even if none actually played for Meyer.
"They had Urban Meyer and we had Urban Meyer, and I tell them that our Urban Meyer team would have beaten their Urban Meyer team,'' Pouncey said. "There are a lot of Florida guys in the [NFL] also, but they go in the first round.''
OK, so the Utah players weren't highly touted coming out of college. Misi and Smith were second-round picks, Soliai a fourth-round selection, Stanford a seventh-round pick and Shelby passed over in the draft.
But the Utah players have a vital role on a defense that ranks second in the AFC in points allowed. Soliai, Misi and Smith have started all eight games, while Shelby and Stanford have played in each game off the bench.
"When you go undefeated and win ball games, you kind of want to pick guys off that roster,'' said Smith, referring to the 2008 team, which went 13-0 and featured all the Utes on the Dolphins except Soliai. "So it's a very smart move. We have guys who know how to win. We're tough, physical, we know to compete and we're playmakers.''
Miami's Utah players also are all good friends. Soliai, the senior member, regularly has some of the players over to his house for barbecues on Friday nights, when they watch a football game. One was a 27-20 Utes overtime loss at Utah State on Sept. 7.
"It's great to see some of my teammates and some of the guys that went to the same school,'' Soliai said. "I played with R.J. and Sean. And while I didn't play with Koi and Shelby, I knew about them playing for the U. And it seems like we all played together. We always talk about the games and how they're doing, and even though they're going through some tough times now, we support our school no matter what.''
Miami's defense is not having tough times with its Utah players. In the six plays at Cincinnati that featured all five, the Bengals gained just 8 yards.
Miami's Ute connection
Player Years at Utah
Sean Smith, cornerback 2006-2008
R.J. Stanford, cornerback 2006-2009
Koa Misi, linebacker 2007-2009
Paul Soliai, defensive tackle 2005-2006
Derrick Shelby, defensive end 2008-2011