Allen Park — The Detroit Lions have leaned heavily on their rookie class through the first five games of the 2021 season. Offensive tackle Penei Sewell hasn’t missed a snap at left tackle, both nose tackle Alim McNeill and wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown have been featured pieces in their positional rotations, as has linebacker Derrick Barnes following the early release of Jamie Collins.
But things have been slower to develop for second-round pick Levi Onwuzurike.
Through five games, he’s played just 61 snaps on defense, as he battled through back and hip injuries in training camp that sidelined him the first game of the season, all while trying to knock off the accumulated rust after opting out of his final season at the University of Washington.
But now that the ball is finally rolling for Onwuzurike, he’s starting to gain steam. He’s seen his snap count increase each of the first four games he’s been active, culminating with 20 last Sunday against Minnesota.
“What I really think has allowed him to get better is he’s starting to really play fundamentally sound,” defensive line coach Todd Wash said. “He’s a pretty high player (with his pad level) and he’s learning to play with his knees bent, playing with the strength that he has. He’s extremely strong, but he’s playing with great technique right now, and I think that’s just taken time because he’s missed a lot of time.”
Wash said there was a game earlier this season where Onwuzurike performed poorly and the veterans in the room — Michael Brockers and Nick Williams — called him out and demanded more. The coach has been pleased, both with that peer-to-peer accountability, as well as the rookie’s response.
“It’s a situation where he’s feeling the pressure and he’s really starting to respond,” Wash said. “He’s practicing well and playing well, so I think his role will even continue (to grow) as we go forward here.”
Unlike some rookies, where they’re versatility is held in check while they acclimate to the speed and demands of the pro game, the Lions have explored having Onwuzurike line up all across the defensive line, including nose tackle, both tackle spots and on both edges.
Wash said when watching film, there are times Onwuzurike wows and others where it’s clear he has a lot of room for growth. Ironing out that inconsistency is going to be critical to his playing time, but he’s certainty trending in the right direction, which the coach hopes will allow him to dial back a little on Brockers’ workload, easing the wear-and-tear on the 10-year veteran.
Onwuzurike has been a patient pupil. He’s doing his best to take in the teachings, not just from Wash and defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn, but also those veterans demanding more from him. Onwuzurike understands why he hasn’t played much, to this point, and will continue to hone his technique until that bigger role naturally develops.
“You just gotta have a fifth-grade mentality,” Onwuzurike said. “You gotta come in wanting to learn. That’s what it’s about. If you learn, you get better, you get out there. You gotta have the whole knowledge of the defense and then you’ll get out there.
“So nah, I’m fine with it, I’m learning behind some great dudes and as I get better and better, I’ll get out there.”
We’re running a new-subscriber special. Support local journalism, and subscribe here.