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Vic Fangio makes his Dolphins debut and return to the NFL against a familiar opponent

Quarterback Tua Tagovailoa isn’t the only one making a return in the Dolphins’ season opener against the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday.

Vic Fangio, who took what he called a “sabbatical” during the 2022 season, will be back in the coaches’ booth where he’s often called plays during his stints as a defensive coordinator — this time, leading the debut of Miami’s new-look defense.

And in his first regular-season NFL game since he was the Denver Broncos’ head coach, he’ll face a familiar opponent, albeit with a lot of unknowns regarding his defense and the opposing offense’s game plan.

As head coach in Denver, Fangio faced off against the Justin Herbert-led Chargers four times in 2020 and 2021, going 2-2 in those meetings. In those matchups, Herbert completed 66 percent of his passes for 1,071 yards, eight touchdowns and four touchdowns.

Fangio on Thursday was very complimentary of a quarterback who just two months ago signed the richest contract in NFL history in terms of average annual value.

“The guy’s just highly, highly talented,” Fangio said. “Obviously, he’s got great size, got a big arm but yet he throws the ball with touch. He’s throwing a very catchable ball. Can throw it to anywhere on the field: short, intermediate and deep and real deep. Very elusive. He’s a good scrambler. When he pulls it down and runs, he’s fast. He’s a complete quarterback.”

Fangio previously said he devised new coverages during his time away from the NFL and Week 1 could be the first time he unveils those schemes. However, throughout training camp it was unclear who would be executing the defense at key spots. The team held competitions for the duration of the summer to replace the injured Jalen Ramsey at corner and to find a starting safety opposite Jevon Holland.

Fangio said the team would rotate players at both positions on Sunday.

“We’re going to work all the guys in there at the safety and corner position, depending upon the packages,” he said.

After trading corner Noah Igbinoghene to the Dallas Cowboys for Kelvin Joseph last week, veteran Eli Apple and rookie Cam Smith figure to get extended time at outside cornerback in nickel packages with Xavien Howard and Kader Kohou.

“I think Eli’s come in here, he came in late after Jalen went down and he’s done a good job of picking up the system,” Fangio said. “He’s a pro. He knows how to approach things. So a good level of trust there. And as far as Cam goes, I think it’s still a work in progress.”

Miami Dolphins cornerback Cam Smith (24) walks between drills at the Baptist Health Training Complex in Miami Gardens, Florida on Thursday, September 7, 2023.
Miami Dolphins cornerback Cam Smith (24) walks between drills at the Baptist Health Training Complex in Miami Gardens, Florida on Thursday, September 7, 2023.

As for the safety position, the Dolphins have several candidates, including new addition DeShon Elliott, 2022 starter Brandon Jones and second-year player Verone McKinley III.

Holland, an emerging third-year player, said he feels comfortable with whoever lines up next to him in the secondary.

“We were all rotating, getting reps and whatnot. So I think when whoever is in there whether it be Brandon, me, Verone, DeShon, Elijah [Campbell] when he gets back, everybody’s going to be ready to go out there and ball,” Holland said on Monday.

There will be a degree of uncertainty at SoFi Stadium. Though the Dolphins faced the Chargers just nine months ago, Los Angeles changed offensive coordinators in the offseason, hiring former Dallas Cowboys assistant Kellen Moore to lead the offense. Los Angeles opted not to play its headlining players in the preseason and that includes Herbert, as well as other key offensive starters.

The Chargers have stated a desire to throw the ball more downfield — a strength of Herbert’s — but outside of that, the Dolphins are taking cues from everywhere to get a sense of what their new-look defense may see from an equally new Chargers offense.

“You always try to just watch a little bit everything, try to see what you can pick up on,” defensive lineman Christian Wilkins said. “I watch last year’s stuff, just to even kind of see tendencies, maybe, or whatever it is. This year, even though it’s a small sample size ... I try to watch a little bit everything so you can get a beat for individual players and for the scheme.”