Detroit Lions minicamp observations: Dan Campbell finding unique ways to motivate players

Detroit Free Press

It’s closer to something that every coach does than it is reinventing the wheel, but Dan Campbell has made competition a staple of his practices as Detroit Lions coach.

There’s the usual ways: One-on-one drills between receivers and defensive backs, and seven-on-seven sessions of offense vs. defense. But Campbell (or his assistants) also have devised games of medicine ball tennis for linemen to play during rookie minicamp and on Wednesday they had five heats of what I’ll call a hoop race.

One player from offense squared off against one player from defense racing around adjacent agility hoops, with the first one to hit a tackling bag at the end of the loop declared the winner.

Linebacker Julian Okwara beat tight end Alize Mack in the first rep. Linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton topped tight end Jake Hausmann (who slipped) on the second. And with the offense down 2-0, running back Jamaal Williams beat safety Dean Marlowe in the third and receiver Victor Bolden topped cornerback Corn Elder (another slip) in the fourth to send the showdown to a winner-take-all fifth heat between assistants Steve Oliver (an offensive quality control coach) and Brian Duker (a defensive assistant).

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When Duker edged Oliver, defensive players broke out in raucous celebration and hoisted Duker up in the air.

The reward for winning? Nothing but bragging rights, which is enough to get the juices flowing for most competitors.

“It’s very competitive,” linebacker Trey Flowers said. “He put a lot of competitive things out there, things to have fun, so anytime you can get guys to compete against one another, bring that competitive spirit out, talk a little noise, play for something, have something to play for. We’re all competitive, so we’re going to go hard, we’re going to try to beat the next man. To bring that into the camp is definitely a positive. I mean, a lot of guys love it.”

Competition, as Campbell has noted, is at the root of sport in general and football in particular. One man trying to beat another, so his team can defeat the other man’s team.

Again, this is not earth-shattering. Every coach since the beginning of time (even a know-nothing like me with the middle school girls basketball team I coach) puts their players in competitive situations to prepare for games.

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But it is insight into Campbell’s mind, and maybe a little sliver of the reason why the Lions set up cornhole boards in the hallway during the draft and will welcome ping-pong tables and the like back into the locker room this fall after they disappeared under Matt Patricia.

As offseason rules have changed, shrinking the time players spend on the field and limiting the drills they can do once out there, Campbell and his staff are finding creative ways to bond players by putting them in competitions that are sometimes only loosely related to football.

“That was just something to get the guys going and just enjoy each other’s company,” Marlowe said. “We have the best job in the world. Where else would you rather be than on June 9, playing in the National Football League? And I think they try to bring that into perspective to know that we have the best job and you guys compete, and with competition, there’s fun. So we’re just trying to have fun.”

More observations from Wednesday’s practice:

• After Day 1 of minicamp went to the defense, the offense got its revenge Wednesday. Jared Goff was sharp in two sessions of seven-on-seven drills, lasering several passes into tight windows and getting some help from teammates like D’Andre Swift and T.J. Hockenson.

Goff went 1 of 3 in his first session of the first seven-on-seven drill, then completed his next nine passes by my count. Quinton Dunbar broke up a short curl route to Tyrell Williams and Hockenson couldn’t quite hang onto a pass that was slightly out of reach, but Goff threw a pretty corner route to Williams and zipped a deep out to Amon-Ra St. Brown before the period was done.

When the Lions moved into the low red zone (inside the 10-yard line) for their second period of seven-on-seven, Swift opened the period with a phenomenal one-handed catch in the left corner of the end zone against Jahlani Tavai. Goff followed with a bullet to Hockenson in front of Will Harris, who wanted an offensive pass interference flag on the play. And Hockenson lost Harris with a mouth-dropping juke later in the period.

• As good as Goff was Wednesday, I’ll give David Blough credit for the throw of the day. Blough, in his first throw of seven-on-sevens, had a duck to Tom Kennedy deflected by Elder. Two plays later, he threw an absolute dime to undrafted rookie tight end Brock Wright on a seam route down the middle of the field.

While Tom Boyle continues to take second-team quarterback reps and seems relatively safe in that spot, Blough earned praise from Campbell before practice Wednesday.

“I love the kid if I’m being totally honest with you,” Campbell said. “He’s just a little football player. And when I say that, I mean that in the highest regard. Look, he’s smart. He’s extremely smart. He knows where to go with the football, I love his timing. He knows how to command the huddle, he communicates well and on top of that, he’s a hell of a dude, by the way. He just is. So, he has not disappointed. He’s doing a good job. He’s out there competing with the rest of those guys.”

• The Lions spent two periods working on kick return and kick coverage Wednesday, and they gave Swift a few surprising reps as the deep man on returns.

Kalif Raymond worked first in the kick return rotation and seems pretty entrenched at the spot heading into the season. I doubt we’ll see Swift handling many returns this fall. He’s too valuable to the offense. But if something happens to Raymond and the Lions need an emergency replacement, I guess they could do worse then turn the job over to their best running back.

Swift had two returns for a total of 16 yards at Georgia, so it’s probably a catch-and-take-a-knee situation if he’s out there. He did catch the one kick he fielded Wednesday without issue (the other was in the deep corner of the end zone, so running backs coach Duce Staley tossed Swift a ball to return), but he seemed to be going about half-speed when he came out of the end zone.

• No Jeff Okudah at practice Wednesday, and no word yet on why not. Okudah, the No. 3 pick of last year’s draft, has been a staple at left cornerback so far this offseason. He is returning from December groin surgery, and the Lions badly need him to have a big season this fall.

With Okudah out, Dunbar — who is massive for a cornerback at 6 feet 2 and 202 pounds — took first-team reps opposite Amani Oruwariye.

Austin Bryant remains out with what Campbell said before practice was a minor injury, and Jalen Reeves-Maybin did not practice Wednesday after injuring his heel Tuesday.

• Derrick Barnes went through position drills, but did not take part in seven-on-seven work or linebacker coverage drills. Jamie Collins, likewise, sat out everything but individual period for the second straight day.

Barnes did spend about 10 seconds conversing with Lions special assistant Chris Spielman when linebackers coach Mark Deleone gave his troops a quick water break between drills. Clearly, Spielman, a former linebacker, has taken a liking to Barnes, the Lions’ second fourth-round pick.

• Finally, in those linebacker-running back drills, Swift ran by Tavai at one point for an easy touchdown, and Tavai seemed a step slow putting his foot in the ground on a pass to Jason Cabinda. Tavai will be a core special teams player for the Lions this fall, and it will be fascinating to see what kind of role the slimmed-down linebacker can have come training camp.

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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