“I call them the ‘Fab Five’ — [though] most of them weren’t even born then,” he joked with reporters after Tuesday’s training camp practice at Missouri Western State University in St. Joseph, referencing the name given to the University of Michigan’s 1991 basketball recruiting class. “We drafted five guys and I said, ‘You guys need to understand that this group is very special.’ So to be able to have the guys come in and have the camraderie that they’ve had and be able to have the love for one another has been great.
“But it’s like Christmas. You’re working with the guys, trying to teach them new techniques — [and] they’re all sponges. So it’s been wonderful.”
Now that cornerback Charvarius Ward and safety Tyrann Mathieu signed with the San Francisco 49ers and New Orleans Saints during the offseason, some of the young defenders will be counted upon for major roles. Merritt wants them to focus on playing their best — regardless of their rookie status.
“So, the young guys,” he explained, “what I want them to do is just look at it as football. ‘What’s the call? What’s the technique that we’re asking you to play?’ And go out and execute that technique to the best of your ability.
“I don’t get into the veteran-young guy thing, because all of a sudden you might start thinking that you’re less than [another player] — and I don’t want the young guys to think that they’re less than anyone else that’s out there on the field. And so I just make sure that I teach them the techniques [and] what it is that I’m looking for out of this particular call — and let them go out there and do the best that they can.”
Merritt is particularly pleased with the performance of the defensive back room’s two highest draft picks: cornerback Trent McDuffie and safety Bryan Cook.
“Trent has done a great job,” Merritt declared. “Trent has competed with the ‘ones’ the entire time. He’s very comfortable out there at the corner spot as well as the nickel. The thing is that now we have a guy that can actually do dual roles for us — just like L.J. [L’Jarius Sneed]. He’s very patient at the line of scrimmage and has done a great job.”
Merrit said that Cook has assumed a leadership role among the young players.
“Cook is the ‘Energizer Bunny,’” said Merritt. “You see him on the sideline. He’s the one over there dancing to the music and everything. He has taken a leadership role — which is what we thought he was going to become — and he’s already doing it for us.”
While McDuffie and Cook are likely both locks to make the roster, not all of the young players now enjoy that status. Before Saturday’s first preseason game against the Chicago Bears, Merritt said that the advice he’s been giving his young players echoes the simple counsel he once received from a legendary coach.
“I remember back when I was a rookie in Miami — [coach] Don Shula at the time — you throw rookies out there to see how well they’re going to fare against the big guys. It’s very important for the rookies to be able to get in there and get their feet wet.
“They’re all nervous right now. I told them yesterday, ‘Hydrate — and understand that you’re going to be playing on defense as well as special teams. So don’t look for any breaks. Make sure you stretch and hydrate.’”