Allen Park — The first game for every first-round draft pick is exciting, but there’s a different level of buzz surrounding the impending debut of Detroit Lions defensive end Aidan Hutchinson.
A homegrown product who played his high school ball for Dearborn Divine Child and collegiately at the University of Michigan, Hutchinson’s jersey has been the most requested by a fan base as they look to him to resuscitate a pass rush that’s been on life support the past few seasons.
Generally speaking, debuts and lofty expectations are a good source of nerves, but Hutchinson seems to be taking everything in stride. In fact, he already sounds like a grizzled veteran.
“As big as this game is, I think it’s really just simple at the end of the day,” Hutchinson said. “I never get too wrapped up in the emotions of it. Obviously, I’m passionate and I have fun, but it’s never out of control. That’s never been an issue for me.”
And with that vet-like mentality, it’s enough to put defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn at ease, knowing there’s nothing extra he needs to say to the rookie ahead of Sunday’s opener against Philadelphia.
“There’s one thing about that player, you don’t have to give him advice about his intensity level, he’s already at the intensity level,” Glenn said this week. “You guys seen him practice, you’ve seen him play, so there’s nothing to be said about that, you don’t have to over-coach that player on that. That’s just natural for him, so we’re going to let Aidan be Aidan and you’ll see exactly what you’re going to get from him.”
The Lions also treated Hutchinson like a veteran throughout the preseason. From the opener to the finale, he played with the starters and exited the game with the starters, even being held out of the middle contest after two days of joint practices with the Indianapolis Colts.
That means he logged just 31 defensive snaps, but he made his presence felt in the limited work, logging three tackles, including one behind the line, drawing a holding penalty and contributing on a sack.
Hutchinson has fit in so naturally with the Lions, he’s been able to quickly come out of his self-imposed shell.
No, we’re not talking about his viral rendition of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” from HBO’s “Hard Knocks.” Instead, it was another moment caught by the documentary series that showcased Hutchinson’s inherent leadership skills coming through, despite a previously stated commitment to keep his nose down and be a background figure during the earliest stages of his career.
In a reversal of the expected roles of rookie and veteran, the fourth episode highlights Hutchinson pumping up teammate Charles Harris prior to the preseason finale against Pittsburgh.
“Yeah, it’s just natural for me,” Hutchinson said. “I try not to talk too much, but when I feel the vibe isn’t quite how it should be, it’s just natural to me, talking to Charles, pumping him up and just pumping the boys up just because I feel like it’s good morale. It’s just a natural thing that happens.”
It’s Detroit’s culture, instilled by coach Dan Campbell, trickling from the top down, that encourages players to be themselves. That, along with the welcoming attitude of his teammates, has given Hutchinson the comfort to be authentic.
“It’s awesome,” Harris said. “On and off the field, he’s just a great teammate, great individual. Like I said, he’s not a rookie. He’s really not. You’d think he’d been in the league as long as me, in terms of his recovery, the way he carries himself on and off the field, how his attention to detail is. But it’s very helpful, not just for myself but for the team, for the D-line to have a guy like that within our arsenal.”
Of course, leadership and attitude are a great starting point, but now, more than anything, the Lions need Hutchinson to produce. A year after setting Michigan’s single-season sack record, everyone is looking for more of the same in Detroit.
Harris, who led the Lions in sacks last season, is excited about what he and Hutchinson can be as a tandem.
“Very destructive,” Harris said. “Very, very destructive.”