DAVIE, Fla. — In his many roles with the Miami Dolphins, Charles Clay recalls one assignment as especially daunting: He attempted to block 325-pound defensive tackle Vince Wilfork, a mismatch that made a lasting impact.
“He clubbed me across my head,” Clay recalled with a chuckle Tuesday.
That was two years ago during Clay’s rookie season. Lately he has been the one to leave opponents sprawling, and his emergence as a hybrid tight end with a big-play knack has given the Dolphins’ offense some much-needed punch.
“He has broken about 35 tackles in the last three games, taking them on three at a time,” teammate Mike Wallace said. “Guys don’t even really need to block for Clay anymore. He’s like a bulldozer.”
Clay’s actual statistics are only slightly less impressive than Wallace’s exaggerated numbers.
In the past four games he has 24 receptions for 294 yards and three scores, increasing his season totals to 60 catches for 678 yards. He has scored a team-high seven touchdowns.
A sixth-round draft pick in 2011, Clay spent his first two seasons backing up Anthony Fasano and totaled 34 receptions for 445 yards and five scores.
“The thing you’re seeing in him is just an evolution of a younger player gaining confidence in himself, in feeling that we have confidence in him and the quarterback has confidence in him,” offensive coordinator Mike Sherman said. “It’s just a belief system that has risen within himself that he could do certain things that he didn’t know he could do before.”
Clay’s multiple talents were on display in Sunday’s win at Pittsburgh.
Twice he broke tackles by Troy Polamalu, and the second time he kept running to the end zone for the fourth-quarter touchdown that put Miami ahead to stay. He also scored on a reception in the first half, and his block sprung quarterback Ryan Tannehill on a keeper for a 48-yard gain.
“He’s a heck of an athlete that makes small plays and big plays,” Tannehill said.
Unreliable blocking limited the 255-pound Clay’s playing time in his first two seasons.
Doubts were such that the Dolphins signed free agent Dustin Keller to start at tight end this season, but he suffered a season-ending knee injury in August.
With experience, Clay has become a more physical player.
Clay’s pass-catching ability has given the Dolphins a threat in the middle of the field, making it more difficult for opponents to double-team Wallace or Brian Hartline, and his speed is such that Miami often splits him out wide.
Against Pittsburgh, he had seven catches for 97 yards to help Miami score a season-high 34 points.
“As a secondary we talked about Clay often,” Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor said. “He’s another dimension to their offense. Outside or inside, it doesn’t even matter, he showed what he could do.”
At Tulsa, Clay played tailback, fullback, linebacker, defensive end, wide receiver and wildcat quarterback, as well as tight end, and he’s proud of his ability to wear of his versatility.
But with his multiple uses comes obscurity. Clay said he rarely gets recognized while out shopping or dining, and while his smile suggested he’s not complaining, he wants to be known as more than just a utility-man.
“When you start playing when you’re little, you have a dream of being one of those great players,” he said. “That’s what everybody works for. That’s what I want to happen.”