Allen Park — If you thought Dan Campbell would be upset that two of his players exchanged punches after a competitive blocking drill, you don’t know the Detroit Lions coach too well.
A day after rookies Amon-Ra St. Brown and Ifeatu Melifonwu got into a brief but heated scrap, Campbell chose to praise their competitive fire rather than condemn the post-whistle exchange.
“I was fired up because they’re competing, man,” Campbell said Wednesday. “It was good to see both of them, two young bucks, after it. We had a pretty good idea of Amon-Ra, ‘The Sun God,’ what he’s capable of. Just when he gets pads on, he’s aggressive. It showed up on tape in college, like this guy will mix it up. There’s things you see in Iffy (Melifonwu) in school, but yet I didn’t quite know. Just to know he’s got a little, ‘Hey man, I’m not your punching bag,’ that encouraged me, it really did.”
Campbell and his staff didn’t hesitate to pair the two up again minutes later, showing trust that the players wouldn’t let the bad blood simmer over to the rest of practice.
For Campbell, these minor one-on-one altercations are part of the team-building process. As long as things don’t devolve into a full-team melee, similar to what happened during a New York Giants practice this week, the Lions coach is fine with it.
“We have a 10-minute period and we have eight minutes of it is fighting amongst the team where it’s kind of counterproductive,” Campbell said. “At that point, you have to do something about it because you’re not getting any work done. But those little things I think, man, I just think they make you practice better. They make you practice harder. You don’t want to lose to that guy. You’re pissed off. I love it because it puts you to that point where you see red so much that you want to beat this guy, but yet you have to be under control enough to know that you can’t just go out there and throw a haymaker.”
Third-year linebacker Anthony Pittman, a Wayne State product who also attended high school locally, has been impressing with his confidence and performance to begin training camp.
Pittman, who served as an outside linebacker as a member of the team’s practice squad the past two years, requested and was granted a move back to inside linebacker, which he played in college. After dropping 15 pounds to regain some of his speed, he’s been showing up all over the field, intercepting one pass and nearly snagging two others.
That playmaking ability hasn’t been lost on the coaches.
“A guy that really stands out is Pittman,” defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn said, when asked about his overall impressions of the team’s inside linebackers. “He’s making plays on the ball, he’s running to the ball. You see the physical nature of him. There’s a lot of things about that player that I like.”
Campbell, who acknowledged he didn’t know much about Pittman until the coaches reviewed the film this offseason, has been equally impressed.
“Every day he does something,” Campbell said. “He can run, he’s physical, he’s young. He’s one of those guys you get really fired up about as a young guy developing and growing. It’s like what can he be? What can this guy be? But the potential is there and he’s working extremely hard at it.”
Another young player who has been performing well in the early stages of camp is rookie running back Jermar Jefferson. He had another nice run on Wednesday, bouncing a carry outside when he caught the outside cornerback cheating too far inside, giving up the edge.
“He’s making a couple of runs here, he’s got pretty good vision,” Campbell said. “I think he’s got a feel about him and I feel like he’s growing a little bit every day. He’s smart.”
But it was the way Jefferson responded to a low point that had Campbell even more excited. On Tuesday, the running back was badly beaten in the same blocking drill that led to St. Brown and Melifonwu’s fight, getting driven into the ground by veteran safety Dean Marlowe.
“You could just see it man, he wanted to be put back in there immediately. He really wanted the rep again, but (special teams coordinator Dave) Fipp had already called somebody up,” Campbell said. “I could tell it bothered him. … It legitimately bit at him. And I love that. I love that. I do. Because I know today, he’s not going to want to let that happen again.”
The Lions opened up a roster spot Wednesday afternoon, releasing linebacker Reggie Gilbert.
A three-year veteran with 29 games of experience, Gilbert had flashed a couple times during the first few days of camp, but had been absent the past three practices.