Why Detroit Lions DC Aaron Glenn saw Amani Oruwariye’s breakout season coming

Detroit Free Press

Amani Oruwariye leads the Detroit Lions — and ranks third in the NFL — with six interceptions, but his breakout season didn’t exactly come out of the Honolulu blue.

Lions defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn said Thursday he saw signs of Oruwariye being a ball hawk during his college days at Penn State, when he picked off seven passes in his final two seasons amid little fanfare.

“Just knowing him in college, he had ball skills then, so we knew that,” Glenn said. “But getting a chance to actually be with him and be around him, and you really have a new appreciation for how that player attacks the ball, has hands like a receiver.”

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Orwuariye delivered the highlight defensive play of the Lions’ season in last week’s 30-12 win over the Arizona Cardinals when he made a diving interception on a Kyler Murray pass to A.J. Green midway through the third quarter.

The momentum-turning takeaway came two plays after Lions running back Godwin Igwebuike lost a fumble near midfield, and it set up a Jason Cabinda touchdown that gave the Lions an insurmountable 21-point lead.

Fourteen games into his third season, Oruwariye already has doubled his career interception total, and he has done so in a variety of ways.

Against the Chicago Bears on Thanksgiving, Oruwariye undercut a post route to Damiere Byrd while playing off coverage in the red zone.

A week earlier against the Cleveland Browns, he caught a gift of an overthrown pass by Baker Mayfield.

And early in the season, he made an assortment of right-place, right-time type plays, picking off passes by Joe Burrow, Lamar Jackson and Justin Fields.

“To me, I think the most impressive play that he made was the (almost) interception when he was out of bounds, when he went up and caught that ball,” Glenn said. “Not just that, he snagged it and tried to keep himself in-bounds. And that’s a trait that is hard to find in a lot of DBs, ball skills like that. And he can be a special player. He really can. There’s other things he has to improve on, but he understands that and (if he) continues to improve the way he’s improving, he can be a special player.”

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Oruwariye, who missed his second straight practice Thursday with a thumb injury, already has exceeded most reasonable expectations from when the Lions made him a fifth-round pick in 2019 and now is approaching an offseason in which he is eligible for a contract extension that could yield life-changing money.

A bit player as a rookie, Oruwariye started 15 games at right cornerback last season and has developed into a more well-rounded cover man this year, moving around the Lions secondary, occasionally traveling with the opposing team’s No. 1 receiver and benefitting from a change in defensive scheme.

He struggled twice in games against second-year Minnesota Vikings receiver Justin Jefferson, but leads the Lions with 11 passes defended and is allowing a career-low passer rating against (74.1), according to Pro Football Reference.

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Glenn, a former NFL cornerback who played with five teams over 15 seasons, said the next step in Oruwariye’s development is to become a “shut-down corner as far as his man skills.”

While that space is occupied by only a few NFL players — guys such as the Los Angeles Rams’ Jalen Ramsey and the New Orleans Saints’ Marshon Lattimore — Glenn said Oruwariye has both the mentality and ability to get there and will work his tail off trying to do so.

“I want Amani to be Amani,” Glenn said. “I don’t want him to be Ramsey, I don’t want him to be Lattimore, I want him to be who he is, and whatever that is I can get out of him, I’ll be happy with that. And right now, we’re getting a lot out of him.”

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

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