While Aaron Jones is getting some Most Valuable Player support from around the NFL, a former UTEP teammate is making the most of his opportunity in Miami.
Nik Needham finished his college career as the Miners all-time leader in pass breakups.
Despite projecting as a late-round NFL Draft pick, all 32 teams passed on him and Needham signed a free agent contract with the Dolphins.
He made an instant impression on the team and received a lot of playing time in the preseason.
Needham was part of the team’s last cuts prior to the start of the season, but Miami brought him back as a member of their practice squad.
“I think getting released and going through that process took him through a little bit of the reality of what the National Football League could be,” Dolphins head coach Brian Flores told the Miami Sun Sentinel.
“It could be over in a heartbeat. He embraced that challenge and turned things around quickly and I would say took everything a little bit more seriously — meetings, practice, walk-through, weightlifting, nutrition,” Flores said.
Needham lost 12 pounds while on the Dolphins practice squad by ditching fast food for a healthy diet of spinach, brown rice and skinless chicken breast.
When Pro Bowl cornerback Xavien Howard was placed on injured reserve, Needham was activated to the Dolphins roster from the practice squad and he started in his first ever NFL game against the Washington Redskins on Oct. 13.
Since that game, he has made a number of big plays on defense and has quickly become one of Miami’s most promising rookies.
He recorded nine total tackles and a sack against the New York Jets, and the following week Needham intercepted a Brian Hoyer pass in the fourth quarter to seal the Dolphins second win of the season against the Colts.
On Nov. 17, he had six solo tackles, a forced fumble and two pass breakups against Buffalo.
Needham played 71 of the team’s 72 total snaps on defense against the Bills and he graded out among the team’s best defensive players in that game according to Pro Football Focus.
Over his last three games, Needham has totaled 21 tackles, nine runs tops and five pass breakups.
That is in addition to his sack and interception.
The Dolphins recent two-game win streak was the first time Needham had won consecutive games in four years.
He won just one game over his junior and senior seasons with the Miners, and UTEP’s last two-game win streak was in September 2015 against New Mexico State and Incarnate Word.
Needham’s emergence with the Dolphins has been one of the team’s few bright spots this season.
If he continues to play like he has over the last six weeks, the Buena Park, California, native will go from practice squad success story to valuable long-term member of the Dolphins’ defensive backfield.
Since 1997, Steve Kaplowitz has hosted “Sportstalk” from 4 to 7 p.m. weekdays on 600 ESPN El Paso. You can email him at email@example.com.