Most Englishmen that go into sport choose football. But it wasn’t until he came across the pond that Jay Ajayi found himself immersed in America’s rendition of the game.
Before stealing national headlines by joining the company of O.J. Simpson, Earl Campbell and Ricky Williams as the only players to rush for 200 yards in back to back NFL games, Ajayi took an unusual path to South Beach. Born in London to Nigerian parents, Ajayi moved to Maryland at age seven and found his love for the gridiron when he moved again, this time to the football capital of the world, Texas.
Rushing for 2,240 yards and 35 touchdowns as a high school senior, Ajayi was the 41st ranked high school running back in the country. Continuing his pilgrimage across the globe, Ajayi signed to play at Boise State University in Idaho.
The production didn’t slow down for the lad with the unique English accent and a pinch of southern drawl as he accumulated 3,796 rushing yards and 50 touchdowns on the smurf turf at BSU. 1,823 of those yards and 28 of the touchdowns coming in his final year as a junior.
The numbers jumped off the page and caught the eye of NFL scouts. But a rumor of degenerative knees caused his draft stock to plummet. A number of teams removed him from their draft boards after medical evaluations revealed he would need micro facture surgery in the near future.
One scout went as far as to call Ajayi a “ticking time bomb” and the two-time All Mountain West running back slid to the fifth round where the Miami Dolphins selected him with the 149th pick in the 2015 draft.
Depending on whose word you take, the end result was all that mattered as Ajayi started his rookie season on injured reserve. He made his NFL debut on November 8, 2015 with an explosive, galvanizing type of impact on the game. His bruising running style was on display early, lending questions as to why this guy wasn’t active for the first seven games.
Joe Philbin was just as notorious for benching rookies as he was for rostering, and starting, low-quality football players.
After the team parted ways with local product, Lamar Miller, Jay Ajayi was given the reigns to the backfield for the 2016 season. The position featured Ajayi, a career third down back in Damien Williams, a never-was in Daniel Thomas, a rookie third round pick in Kenyan Drake, and former second round pick looking to make the most of his last shot in the league in Isaiah Pead.
The job was said to have been handed to Ajayi prior to the acquisition of a well-known veteran superstar, Arian Foster.
A disappointing pre-season, and more faith in the veteran presence offered by Foster, Coach Adam Gase announced it would be Foster, not Ajayi, that would start the season opener in Seattle on September 11.
Ajayi didn’t take the news well. Reports indicated that his mood and attitude got the best of him. One player was quoted as saying Ajayi was, “sulking” the week of practice leading up to the game.
In an unprecedented move, Gase left the second year running back at home in Miami when the team traveled west making Ajayi a healthy inactive for the first game of the year.
Ajayi would suit up for the team’s week two game in Foxboro against the Patriots. But when Foster left the game with an injury in the first quarter, it was rookie Kenyan Drake that saw first action in his place, not Ajayi.
Finally getting an opportunity, Ajayi’s first four carries netted 14 yards. But on his fifth carry, he fumbled and ended a promising drive and led to a New England touchdown to stretch the Patriots lead to 28 points. He wouldn’t see the field for the rest of the game and his time in Miami appeared to be running short.
Now planted firmly in the coach’s doghouse, questions about his fit in the Dolphins scheme arose. A power, downhill runner that is best at getting the wheels turning before he secures the hand-off, picking his spots in a zone-scheme was the equivalent of fitting a square peg into a round hole.
Beat writers, fans, message boards and all outlets speculated if the former college star might be better served to move to another team for a fresh start.
True to his word about adapting the scheme to fit his players, Adam Gase gave Ajayi a chance to earn his way back into the good graces of the coaching staff. Sitting at 0-2 with a game everyone was picking Miami to win against the Browns, Ajayi’s production still left a lot to be desired as his first six carries netted only 17 yards.
Although already in range to kick the winning field goal in over-time, Gase called a sweep off the weak-side of the formation and Ajayi scampered 11 yards to pay dirt for the game winning score.
Hindsight offers perspective in many forms. One month after the game winning run against the Browns, it’s clear now that Ajayi’s turning point and redemption tour began that day. The staff begun to put more faith in the dreadlocked ball carrier giving him 19 carries over the next two weeks. Although he only gained 77 yards on those runs, he was carving his niche as the team’s top workhorse.
Then the Dolphins welcomed the Pittsburgh Steelers to town.
Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown are the league’s top aerial attraction while the Steelers running back, Le’Veon Bell, is highly regarded as the best back in football.
But much like a lot of good rock concerts, it wasn’t the headliner that stole the show.
Ajayi gashed the Steelers for 204 yards on 24 carries, two rushing touchdowns and the nail in the coffin on a 62 yard touchdown dash that saw the Arsenal Football Club fan out race every Steelers defender into the end-zone.
A one-hit wonder, Ajayi was not.
He followed up his breakout performance with an even more impressive showing accounting for 214 rushing yards, another score, and a crucial blitz pick-up on the game clinching, 60 yard touchdown pass from Ryan Tannehill to Kenny Stills.
Todd Gurley shot to the top of fantasy draft boards this summer after his impressive rookie campaign. In that 2015 season, Gurley rushed for 722 yards on his first 133 carries.
To date, in his career, Jay Ajayi has 133 carries for 722 yards.
So what is it that makes the former England, Maryland, Texas, Idaho and current Miami resident so special?
Donning a million dollar smile, an enchanting English accent and a humble persona, Ajayi would tell you all the credit goes to his coaches and offensive line. And, while they’re certainly responsible for a big chunk, Ajayi is deserving of some serious accolades.
He leads the NFL with an average of 4.4 yards after contact, accumulating 124 yards after shaking a defender in the win over Buffalo.
The numbers speak volumes about what he’s meant to this team the last two weeks. But the game film does the numbers justice as you see the quick feet, decisive vision, his acceleration into the hole and ability to get skinny and maintain that speed. He’s difficult for defenders to square up because he’s so powerful yet jittery. His balance and ability to drop his pad level is giving him all of these yards after contact.
Let’s look at some screen grabs from the end-zone angle in the Buffalo game to demonstrate some of his excellence during this historic two game stretch.
On this particular run, it’s hard to demonstrate by a screen grab, but Ajayi has a defender draped across his waist, and another Buffalo Bill lunges for his feet.
The ability to keep his speed, leap over the defender with another on his back and have the balance to land on his feet is an exceptional display of athleticism.
You see here, it gives him an extra five yards.
On this run, he gets buried in traffic off right tackle.
He has pushed the pile three yards and is still on his feet.
And he’s broken free from the trash and gains another seven yards.
This next image gives you an idea how good the blocking was all day as Ajayi has a couple of holes to choose from.
He makes a jump cut and heads for the gap created by Laremy Tunsil and Branden Albert
And he has the speed to accelerate through it and he’s off to the races for another 10+ yard run.
On this run, he is engulfed by 95 and 53 of the Bills.
But that doesn’t matter, he’s powered through them and onto the next level. It’s only an additional four yards, but that’s the difference between a passing down and opening the playbook.
Here’s a play where he’s corralled around the waist with two more defenders closing in. So not only does he need to make a move, he needs to do it with a 250 pound man hanging from his belt.
A little spin shakes off the first tackle, but slows his momentum moving forward.
Even with the momentum stopped, he still falls forward from the 30 to the 34 – an additional four yards.
Here’s a goal to go situation where the run blocking failed and allowed penetration.
230 pound backs aren’t supposed to be this nimble. He makes a jump cut that completely sells the DB to the inside and gives him an outside lane.
And the space created is apparent here.
From this screenshot, there’s no way he’s scoring a touchdown, right? He’s completely engulfed with two backside pursuers (95 and 26) ready to take him down.
No problem, he just powers through and stretches the ball across the goal line to get the Dolphins back into the game.
Now let’s take a look at the 53 yard run that changed this game. Jermon Bushrod’s stellar block is on display here, but you see the cut back lane that Ajayi has to get through.
And he does. And once he does, he delivers a devastating stiff arm, absorbs the hit to his hip from the other side, and is off to the races down to the Buffalo 46 yard line.
This is one of those sports accomplishments where we don’t fully appreciate its greatness until plenty of time has passed. Back to back 200 yard rushing performances is one of the biggest rarities in the NFL and Jay Ajayi is making a significant portion of that yardage on his own.
The Dolphins running scheme has completely evolved to suit this powerful runner that some are comparing to Ricky Williams or Marshawn Lynch. I don’t quite see the exact comparisons, but I do see the quick feet he developed from being a young soccer player. I see the bruising power that wears defenses down and I see the desire to inflict his will on the opposing defense on every run.
The Dolphins have uncovered a new identity, and they call it the Jay-Train.
You can get more analysis like this on the Phinalysis Podcast debuting this week on Perfectville.
You can listen to Sam and Chris discuss this team’s hot winning streak as well as plenty of other content on the Welcome to Perfectville Podcast.
You can follow me for live game tweets @Travis_Writes and
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Fins up! Jay-Train down!