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Classic '96 moment plus Wed. morning notes

The Olympics were in Atlanta in 1996 and The Herald offered me a chance to skip the heat and endless hours of the first three weeks of Dolphins training camp in exchange for the heat and endless hours of covering the Games -- while not having the opportunity to go home in the evenings, of course.

So I missed the first two weeks of Jimmy Johnson's first training camp.

When I finally got back, I took a couple of days off and then eventually got back to covering the team. After my first practice back was over, I greeted special teams coach Mike Westhoff, one of the few holdovers from the Don Shula staff. Assistant coaches were allowed to speak to the writers without state department permission back then because the Iron Curtain of Parcells and Belichick had not yet descended on the NFL.

So I asked Westhoff about his special teams and he said what he always said, that they would be fine because, well, he's a freakin' great coach. And he is.

He went on to tell me he already had his first special teams headhunter. His name? Larry Izzo.

Who?

"Larry Izzo," Westhoff said. "He's going to be good on teams. He's fearless. And he's on the team."

I didn't pretend to know everything about Johnson's new team but I knew Izzo wasn't a draft pick. And I knew he wasn't a star. And I knew there was no way he could be guaranteed a roster spot when Westhoff reminded me he was an undrafted college free agent from Rice of all places.

So I asked Westhoff, how it was that Izzo was on the team. "That, you have to talk to the head coach about," he answered. "That's not my department."

Well, I started snooping around but before that got very far, Johnson came over to me out of the blue and said he heard I was asking around about Izzo. "Before this gets written all wrong I want you to know what really happened," Johnson said.

(That's pretty cool, too. A head coach wanting the correct facts out there instead of letting misinformation about his team fester.)

Anyway, Johnson proceeded to tell me the famous Larry Izzo story.

Seems during the first preseason game (which I missed because I was covering something like Field Hockey or something) Izzo had blown up the wedge on a kickoff. And that explosion showed up clearly on the tape Johnson graded and then went over with his players in a team meeting.

And so in that meeting, Johnson showed the play, then showed the play again, and then stopped the show. "That is what I expect from a Miami Dolphins player," Johnson told his team. "That is the kind of play and the kind of player the Miami Dolphins are going to be about. And so if you want to be part of the Miami Dolphins, that's how you're going to play.

"And if you play like that, you will be on the Miami Dolphins. I'm looking for 53 guys that can give me that kind of play. I have two so far. Dan Marino is the first," Johnson said. "And Larry Izzo is the second. He's on this team."

Johnson had announced to his team that an undrafted rookie from Rice, a kid that looked more like the paper boy than someone about to be in the paper, was the second player to earn a roster spot behind Dan Marino. And all this after one preseason game.

"I was pretty surprised," an unassuming Izzo told me in an interview room adjacent the Dolphins media room that day. "I believe him, but I'm not going to assume anything. I'm going to play hard every day and see what happens."

What happened is that Johnson was true to his word and Izzo made the team. And he not only made the team, but prospered. Izzo played all 16 games his rookie year and was second on the team with 10 special teams tackles. He had one blocked punt and deflected three others against Seattle, Indianapolis and Houston.

That Houston game was particularly memorable because Izzo was basically celebrating a homecoming and he also had a 26-yard gain on a fake punt that helped the Dolphins win the game. He was voted a special teams Pro Bowl alternate that season.

It's now 13 years later and Larry Izzo has three Pro Bowl trips under his belt, he has three Super Bowl rings on his fingers, and was a team captain on all of those Super Bowl winning teams in New England. This offseason Izzo left the Patriots and signed with the New York Jets.

His special teams coach will again be Mike Westhoff. 

Some Wednesday morning training camp notes:

Shawn Murphy continues to get the snaps with the first-team offense while on defense, Sean Smith and Randy Starks are working with the first unit.

Davone Bess is getting his chance the past couple of practices to work with the first-team offense ahead of Greg Camarillo. I'll be watching Camarillo closely this evening because I've noticed a bit of a dropoff from him in recent days. I don't know if this is knee-related.

The Dolphins did nearly an hour of special teams work in the morning practice. There should be no excuse for poor teams play this year. If the Dolphins are devoting this much time to special teams work this camp, more so than they did last year, it stands to reason coach Tony Sparano will invest some roster spots for special teams play.

That is the reason one cannot dismiss the chances special teams starters such as Jason Allen, Brandon London and Nathan Jones will make the team. Cutting such players comes with a price -- it affects depth, yes, but also affects quality on special teams.

Anyway, Donald Thomas continues to work with the second-team offensive line. The plan, even though Sparano said there wasn't one, is to let Thomas work his way on second-team until next week. Then the competition with Shawn Murphy for the starting RG job begins in earnest.

That gives Thomas two weeks to either beat out Murphy or not. If Murphy falters, he loses the job. As Sparano accurately noted earlier, it's Murphy's job to lose.

By the way, it was a tough morning for Pat White: Threw an interception, fumbled a snap for the third consecutive practice and he took a sack by Lionel Dotson and two buzzer sacks -- sacks where the timing buzzer the coaches have installed to make sure the QBs get the ball off on time goes off before the throw.

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