MIAMI -- The Miami Dolphins' annual search for defensive reinforcements led them down an unlikely road in the NFL draft last spring.
It led them to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
After taking cornerback Troy Vincent of Wisconsin with their first pick, the Dolphins rang the ACC's number on three of their next four choices. They got outside linebacker Marco Coleman of Georgia Tech with their second pick of the first round, defensive end Larry Webster of Maryland in the third round, and inside linebacker Dwight Hollier of North Carolina in the fourth.
As training camp wound down last week, Tom Heckert, the Dolphins' director of player personnel, was projecting all three // ACC picks as eventual starters. When the Dolphins face the New Orleans Saints in a preseason finale at Memorial Stadium tomorrow night, Coleman is expected to be the lone starter in the group. Webster and Hollier will be backups and Vincent, from the Big Ten, is out with a strained left hamstring.
After several seasons of defensive futility, the Dolphins are hoping this is the draft that restores them as a perennial power in the AFC. They have missed the playoffs five of the last six years, and much of that futility can be traced to questionable drafts in the 1980s. To solve the problem, they chose defensive players with their first five picks.
If the 1992 draft turns out to be the road to revitalization, the oddity is that it went through the ACC, which is more celebrated for its Final Four victories in basketball and its high academic standards than for its bowl-game exploits in football.
"We make a concerted effort to get smart guys," Heckert said. "The ACC has good academic schools, and I think that's one thing that helped all three guys. They're smart."
The Dolphins also were lucky on draft day. They got Vincent with the seventh pick when the Cincinnati Bengals took Houston quarterback David Klingler just before them. Then they got Coleman at No. 11 when the Pittsburgh Steelers opted for offensive tackle Leon Searcy.
dTC In Vincent, the Dolphins arguably have the best cover man in the draft. In Coleman, they have the big-play pass rusher they've coveted for years. In Webster and Hollier, they hope to have shored up their woeful run defense.
Coleman made the biggest splash of the new breed this summer when he had three sacks, seven tackles, a forced fumble and a recovered fumble in a victory over the Denver Broncos in Berlin.
Miami cornerback J.B. Brown, another ACC alumnus from Maryland, said this influx of talent means the Dolphins are "more athletic and younger" on defense. "Those guys are really hungry. That's what we need."
What the Dolphins need most is better run defense. Last year they ranked next-to-last in the NFL against the run. Webster, 6 feet 5, 285 pounds, who played at Elkton High, figures to help them improve that ranking.
"The key thing is being a run-stopper," he said of his role. "It takes hard work. I've got a coach [line coach Joe Greene, a Hall of Famer for the Pittsburgh Steelers] who can help me, too. He's the type guy who tells you up front what he thinks."
The Dolphins like what they've seen of Webster, who plays behind left end T.J. Turner. In four games, he has made five tackles, blocked one field goal and helped block another.
"We're very happy with him," said coach Don Shula. "He's a big, strong guy with athletic ability who can do it all. He has to play to gain experience. And he has enough mobility to be a pass rusher."
Shula is equally happy with the preseason performance of Brown in the secondary. A year ago, Miami cornerbacks accounted for only one interception all season. It belonged to Brown, who had two interceptions in the Berlin game.
Brown is more focused this year on where he wants to go.
"My motivation now is to get us to the Super Bowl," he said. "We have some great players, but some of them are getting older. We need to do it this year or next year."