Because Charles Clay stuck to his guns and was willing to play at a lower-profile school, the former University of Tulsa standout has developed into one of the NFL’s most versatile tight ends.
The Little Rock (Ark.) product was never highly recruited, but Miami and a few other colleges offered a scholarship if he would play linebacker or safety. Clay felt his best attributes were on the offensive side.
Following a remarkable TU career that flew under the radar, Clay last season was one of only 10 NFL tight ends to accumulate more than 750 receiving yards.
“We’re very fortunate to have a player like Charles Clay, we really are,” said Dolphins coach Joe Philbin. “He can do so much. He catches the ball well and has a little slip-and-slide to him. He can blow by a guy or cut underneath him and go over the top. He’s got a little shake. He can do a lot.”
Three years ago, Clay had to sweat out the day NFL teams are required to trim the roster to 53 players. When cut-down arrived on Saturday, Clay’s role was more than secure. He is viewed as one of the Miami Dolphins’ top weapons, a player they make sure to include in every game plan, a role he began to embrace at Tulsa.
“(Current Auburn coach) Gus Malzahn was our offensive coordinator that first season,” Clay said. “He asked me what position I wanted to play. I told him I just wanted to contribute but I’d like to have the ball come my way at least a couple of times a game.”
The ball came Clay’s way dozens of times. He finished his career with 189 receptions for 2,544 yards and 28 touchdowns. He also compiled 179 rushing attempts for 911 yards, a solid 5.1 yards-per-carry average.
“From Day 1, Coach Malzahn was really big on, ‘The more you can do the better it is for you and the team,’” Clay said. “I played a lot of different positions that year, which has really helped me in the NFL.”
Clay even played some defense at Tulsa. He appeared in 53 games with the Golden Hurricane and made 43 starts, at times playing tailback, fullback, wide receiver, tight end, linebacker, defensive end and was TU’s “Wildcat quarterback.”
The vast majority of his snaps were on offense, but it was his versatility that convinced the Dolphins he was worth taking a flyer on with a sixth-round pick in the 2011 draft.
“He’s one of those players who’s one of the hardest-working guys on the team,” Philbin said. “Football is very important to him. You can’t have enough players like that on your team. Plus, he’s got good skills. He’s a hard guy to cover.”
Because he’s hard to cover, the Dolphins will constantly move Clay around the field to exploit mismatches on a safety or linebacker.
During the offseason, Philbin hired Philadelphia quarterbacks coach Bill Lazor to be Miami’s offensive coordinator. Lazor, 41, is implementing some of the wide-open plays he learned last year under Eagles coach Chip Kelly.
“I’m very excited about Charles,” Lazor said. “I’ve been around a lot of good ones in this league and I think Charles is a very sudden player. There are a lot of pictures of him on video last year where when he got matched up inside that allowed him to use his explosiveness and quickness.”
Last season, Clay compiled 69 receptions for 759 yards and six touchdowns. This season, those numbers could improve under Lazor.
“We want to open up the world and give him even more things to do,” Lazor said. “We want to utilize his speed, his explosiveness. Because he’s not as big as some guys he’s shown a willingness to stick his face in there which will allow us to play him so many different places.”
Clay said TU coaches stressing versatility forced him to expand the way he studied game film.
“It was huge when they told me to not master one thing but try to learn to do a lot of different things,” Clay said. “I feel fortunate to have so many people help along the way. My first year here I learned so much from Dustin Keller, a veteran. I’ve had a lot of great coaches. I’ve always tried to pick everyone’s brains.”
Clay was a running back in high school. He still gets a few carries. Last year he had seven rushing attempts for the Dolphins, including one touchdown run.
Convinced offense was his best shot at living out his dream of playing in the NFL, Clay said he knew his first season at Tulsa he had made the right choice.
“Since I was 6 years old I always was telling my mom that I wanted to be a professional football player,” Clay said. “That day the Dolphins called and told me they had drafted me, it’s an amazing feeling. I was kind of speechless when they called.”
Entering his fourth NFL season, Clay said he’s grateful he ended up at Tulsa.
“It started there,” Clay said. “For some reason coaches like to move me around. It can be kind of fun, knowing the next play you might be playing in a completely different spot. And as Coach Malzahn said, the more things you can do the better.”