‘A gut punch’: Lions’ Onwuzurike’s season over after back surgery

Detroit News

Allen Park — Following a disappointing rookie season, the Detroit Lions had high hopes for second-year defensive tackle Levi Onwuzurike. Instead, the reaggravation of a back injury suffered in the early days of training camp will end his season.

Lions coach Dan Campbell announced Monday that Onwuzurike had back surgery last week, which will put the young lineman on the shelf for the remainder of the 2022 campaign.

“That’s a little bit of a gut punch,” Campbell said. “…Hopefully this (surgery) certainly helps. It’s a last resort, you know? But he felt like that’s where he needed to go with it. He saw a number of doctors and so we’ll see where it goes.”

Drafted in the second round of the 2021 NFL draft out of the University of Washington, Onwuzurike missed time his first offseason because of the back injury, something the team acknowledged it was aware of prior to selecting him.

He returned early in the season, but was largely ineffective, particularly as a pass rusher, recording 35 tackles and 1.0 sack in nearly 400 snaps. The sack, which came in Week 11, was one of just three quarterback pressures logged by the 6-foot-3, 295-pounder.

Early this offseason, with the back injury presumably in the rearview mirror, the coaching staff had high praise for the dedication and commitment Onwuzurike had been displaying.

“He’s put his money where his mouth is,” Campbell said in April. “I know that from a training standpoint, he’s got enough pride and he knows what he needs to do. Everybody learns at a different rate in this league, man.”

But a week into training camp, during the team’s first padded practice, Onwuzurike’s back issue flared up. He eventually landed on injured reserve after Campbell noted the recovery was moving at a snail’s pace.

With Onwuzurike out, the Lions have had to lean more heavily on veteran, stopgap additions at defensive tackle. Isaiah Buggs, signed days before the start of camp, and Benito Jones, claimed off waivers shortly before the season opener, have combined to play nearly 300 snaps in the first five games.

Making strides

While Onwuzurike is done for the year, a couple of Lions players are inching closer to returning. Campbell said the team will know more about the roster’s health after returning to the practice field Wednesday, but the coach was optimistic about the progress of defensive linemen John Cominsky and Josh Paschal.

“I know Cominsky; it looks pretty promising for him, and Paschal had another good week last week,” Campbell said. “We only had a couple practices, but he’s put two weeks, back-to-back, that have been pretty good.”

Cominsky has been working his way back from a broken thumb, suffered in the team’s Week 2 victory over Washington. At the time of the injury, which required surgery and two screws to repair, he was pacing the team with 10 quarterback pressures.

Paschal, the team’s second-round draft pick this year, has been out since OTAs after having a sports hernia repaired. He remains on injured reserve and the team has another week before he needs to be added to the active roster.

Another injured player who has a week left to practice before needing to be activated is cornerback Jerry Jacobs. He’s also on track to debut in the coming weeks. Campbell said once Jacobs is activated, he’ll contribute immediately on special teams, while competing for playing time at outside cornerback, where he started 12 games last season as an undrafted rookie.

Still no timetable

One injured player who remains without a timetable is defensive end Romeo Okwara, who has been out more than a year after tearing his Achilles. Despite no concrete plans for his to return to practice, the team is still counting on him to return this season.

“Yeah, that’s the plan,” Campbell said. “He is progressing. He’s doing a good job. There again, the Achilles (rehab) just happen at a different rate. But he’s doing a good job and he’s done no wrongs. He puts in the work now. It’s coming. When he’s ready, he’ll be out there.”

Okwara led the team with 10.0 sacks in 2020, prior to signing a new, three-year, $37 million contract the following offseason. He suffered the torn Achilles in Week 4 last year, finishing the abbreviated campaign with six tackles and 1.0 sack.

jdrogers@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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