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Can Kelvin Sheppard become the Dolphins' starting middle linebacker?

Kelvin Sheppard has his eye on earning a starting job in the Dolphins' linebacking corps. AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee

DAVIE, Fla. -- It’s no secret that the Miami Dolphins were inconsistent at linebacker last season. Former Dolphin Dannell Ellerbe was injured in Week 1, Philip Wheeler struggled and was cut this offseason and Koa Misi didn’t look smooth in his transition to middle linebacker. The result was a defense that was ranked No. 24 against the run in 2014.

The Dolphins are trying all they can to get more from their linebackers this season. The experimenting continued Friday when Miami played backup Kelvin Sheppard almost exclusively as the starting middle linebacker.

Sheppard started one game for Miami last season and finished the season with 24 tackles. If Sheppard wins a starting job, it will be one of the bigger surprises of Dolphins training camp.

But it wouldn't be a surprise to Sheppard.

“This is where I expect myself to be, of course,” Sheppard said on Friday. “It’s where I think a lot of my teammates expect me to be. And I’m just here, honestly, wherever my role may fit in. I’m just here to have a real impact on this team.”

Sheppard joined the Dolphins a couple of weeks into the regular season last year and didn’t get the full benefit of Miami’s offseason program and training camp. Therefore, Sheppard got most of his playing time as a sub and on special teams. The fifth-year linebacker re-signed with the Dolphins on a one-year contact and looks better in his second season in Kevin Coyle’s defense.

The potential move also has a lot to do with Misi. The former college defensive end spent his first four seasons at outside linebacker. Then, Misi moved inside in 2014 out of necessity but struggled.

Misi looks more natural at outside linebacker and could raise his level of play with a position change.

“It’s going to take a couple reps to get used to playing [strongside linebacker] again, but I told them wherever they need me to play I will play,” Misi said. “SAM is not that difficult of a position to play. I still know a lot of what I was doing when I was playing SAM. So the carryover is pretty much the same.”

The other combination the Dolphins have used in training camp so far are Misi in the middle and Jelani Jenkins and Chris McCain on the outside.

"We're looking to find the exact right combination," Dolphins coach Joe Philbin said. "Who works best with one another? Who communicates best with one another? Who has the most production when they're out there? Obviously, playing linebacker, the running game it's about getting off blocks and making tackles."

Regardless of which direction the Dolphins go, the linebackers will get a boost by the big acquisition of Pro Bowl defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. He helped lead the Detroit Lions to being the No. 1 run defense in the NFL last year and is expected to help Miami significantly in that area this season.

“You just watch him out there in practice,” Misi said. “The disruption of the [offensive] line is ridiculous. ... It’s crazy. You just gotta get used to it. You’re getting ready to play your gap out here and the ball is cutting back. So you gotta be ready to play with Suh and how he plays his game.”