Before every practice and game, Detroit Lions defensive lineman Jashon Cornell makes sure to take a knee, cross his chest and point skyward.
He does so because over the past two years, he has realized how quickly the game can be taken away.
Cornell missed his rookie season after tearing his Achilles in training camp. Then, he missed the first three games of 2021 with a suspension for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy. The Lions’ 2020 seventh-round pick played in just one game last season.
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Entering his third season, Cornell said he has put that behind him.
“It feels great, I feel like I’m in a place now where I’m good,” he said Wednesday after Day 2 of minicamp. “I mean I want more, but I feel like I’m in a place where I did all the stuff I did before to get to the place.
“Every time you step on this field, you can’t take anything for granted. Because you never know, your last play … I didn’t know my rookie year I’d beat Big V (Halapoulivaati Vaitai) on a pass rush and then next thing you know my Achilles goes out, so you really just got to thank them for your blessings.”
The 6-foot-3, 300-pound Cornell had never missed time before his injury in 2020.
He’d long been a heralded player — from being ranked the No. 1 prospect in the country by ESPN entering his junior year of high school to becoming a staple at Ohio State, with 15 starts over 46 appearances.
Now, he said, he’s eager to show that he belongs at the highest level.
“I feel like I’ve been down and out since I got in the league and feel like this is an opportunity for me to actually show who I am as a player,” he said. “I did all this stuff at Ohio State, and now people are wondering, ‘What is he going to do since his injury?’
“This is an opportunity for me to showcase what I have as a pass rusher and a run stopper in the NFL.”
There are several players ahead of him in the Lions’ defensive line rotation: Alim McNeil, a 2021 third-rounder, has been a strong performer this spring, along with fellow 2021 picksLevi Onwuzurike and John Penisini, plus veteran Michael Brockers, all on the interior.
On the edge, the Lions have veterans Charles Harris and Romeo Okwara, plus 2022 No. 2 overall pick Aidan Hutchinson and 2022 second-rounder Josh Paschal.
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“I love Aidan even though he’s a Michigan guy because I told him from Day 1, ‘You never beat me,’ so, I have no problems with that,” he joked. “But he showed me his ability. … It was the second or third practice, and I was like, ‘OK, you’re legit.’ ”
But for Cornell, the opportunity to go against a Pro Bowler such as Frank Ragnow every day lets him hone his craft.
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He lines up between the center and guard, so he’s going against Ragnow, Vaitai or Jonah Jackson on a regular basis; that forces him, he said, to work on different moves and techniques.
In addition to the struggles of entering the NFL during the first year of the coronavirus pandemic, a season-ending injury and that suspension, Cornell is now on his third different defensive philosophy in as many years.
When asked about it Wednesday, however, he smiled while saying the new scheme suits his game best.
“I love this new philosophy,” he said. “Our coaching staff made this switch to put specific players in position they need to be in to win.
“(For me) three-technique. That’s me right there, that’s the position for me.”
Cornell said he feels refreshed this year, working with teammates instead of being isolated in a training room doing rehab.
The other challenge for Cornell is overcoming the mental aspect of returning from injury. He has discussed it with fellow Buckeye defender Jeff Okudah, who is rehabbing from an Achilles injury as well, and Romeo Okwara.
But Cornell believes he can gain from the injury.
“I say, ‘Everything happens for a reason,’ like that injury happened for a reason for me to sit down and reflect on, ‘Do I really like football, or really love football?’ ” he said. “And I really love this game.
“I wouldn’t have done everything I had to do to come back if I didn’t love this game.”
Contact Tony Garcia at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on twitter at @realtonygarcia.