‘I just like playing football’: Ifeatu Melifonwu getting used to new role as a safety

Detroit News

Allen Park — In a red-zone period during training camp Thursday, second-year defensive back Ifeatu Melifonwu picked off David Blough.

It was a nice play, but one that usually wouldn’t be too noteworthy beyond a simple mention. What made the interception unique was that it came when Melifonwu was playing safety, a new role he’s taken on this offseason with Jeff Okudah and Amani Oruwariye locking down the two boundary cornerback slots.

Melifonwu was sitting back at free safety on the play, responsible for any in-breaking routes that came his way.

“Nothing came immediate to me and then I just read the quarterback off his eyes,” Melifonwu said. “(I) drifted back and then the dig came right behind me and I snagged it.”

Melifonwu was drafted out of Syracuse in 2021 as a corner and played there last season. He was thrust into a starting role against Green Bay in Week 2 after Okudah went down with an Achilles injury in the season opener, but after playing 30 defensive snaps against the Packers, Melifonwu suffered a quad injury that landed him on the injured reserve.

He missed the next nine games, but started the final three of the season for Detroit, logging 15 total tackles, a pass deflection and a fumble recovery in 185 defensive snaps from Weeks 15-17.

Back from injury, and with a few NFL starts under his belt, Melifonwu is ready to make an impact whenever, and wherever, he’s called upon.

“I guess my role is wherever they want to put me,” he said. “I feel like I just have a unique body type to be able to play multiple positions. So, wherever they see fit (is) where I’ll play. I basically have to know every position. Corner, safety, dime (and) some nickel. I’ve just got to be ready.”

The safety room, similar to the cornerback position, has its starters all but ironed out with Tracy Walker and DeShon Elliott on the back end, but Melifonwu could carve out a nice role for himself as a supplemental piece.

“I feel like I’ve learned a lot from Tracy. … Just watching how he plays the middle of the field and how he fits,” Melifonwu said. “It just helps me. If I make a mistake on something or I’m not in the right spot, he’s going to get me right after the play.”

Despite Melifonwu’s openness to moving, changing positions doesn’t come without its set of challenges. It’s difficult to change the mentality that has been drilled into him for so long as a cornerback.

“At corner you’re only seeing half the field and you’re kind of waiting on the safety to make the call to you,” Melifonwu said. “But at safety, you see the full field and you’ve got to make the call. You’ve got to know when to come down. You’ve got to know when to get back.

“I feel like sometimes when you’re middle of the field, you don’t have an exact assignment, but at corner you’re always covering the guy in front of you. You’ve got to just be disciplined with your eyes and stuff and stay in your pedal. It’s just a little different.”

Spending a third-round pick on him just one year ago, it’s natural for the coaching staff to want Melifonwu on the field. Being willing to move him to a whole other position to do so is a risk they must be confident in taking.

“I don’t think there’s that many corners that can go to safety,” Melifonwu said. “It is an easier transition to go from corner to safety than safety to corner, but I feel like just my size and athletic ability helps, and (my) physicality.”

With about five weeks before Detroit opens the season at home against the Philadelphia Eagles, Melifonwu has some time to hone in on the intricacies of being a safety. And at the end of the day, he’s just happy to get an opportunity on the field.

“I’m getting used to it,” he said. “But I just like playing football.”

rsilva@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @Rich_Silva18

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