Lions’ Levi Onwuzurike upbeat as he inches forward through rehab

Detroit News

Allen Park — It’s been 17 months since Levi Onwuzurike last played in a football game — and he still lacks a clear timetable to return to action following back surgery last October — yet the Detroit Lions third-year defensive tackle continues to show up to work every day with a smile on his face.

Onwuzurike has had anything but an ideal start to his career, after the Lions selected him in the second round of the 2021 draft, with his back giving him issues almost from the start. The injury limited his practice time and effectiveness as a rookie, when he finished with a single sack and just three quarterback pressures, despite playing nearly 400 defensive snaps in 16 games. And his sophomore campaign was derailed when the injury sidelined him in the early stages of training camp last year, culminating in the October procedure.

“It was tough, for sure, but when I think about it, I needed to be out and needed to do what I had to do to get back on the field,” Onwuzurike said. “So, when you really think about it, it was a good thing.”

Onwuzurike declined to offer specifics on the injury or surgery, while every question about his future has been met with vague uncertainty. The most optimistic answer recently came from coach Dan Campbell, who noted the player’s rehab is on track and there’s hope Onwuzurike will get medically cleared at some point during training camp later this summer.

For now, Onwuzurike is taking baby steps toward that goal, following a detailed plan set forth by the training staff, led by Brett Fischer, the team’s new director of player health and performance.

“With Fisch and the coaches, it’s little by little, trying to have everyday wins,” Onwuzurike said. “You can’t just go from not playing to playing. You have to inch toward that goal. The stuff he’s having me do is stuff I’ve never seen. I’ve got guys in Arizona who trained with him and they spoke to how good he is at what he does. So, when you have a guy like that, you trust his plan and attack it wholeheartedly.”

Fischer, who runs his own performance and rehab center, worked as a consultant with the Cardinals for the past 15 years. There, he would have overlapped with Onwuzurike’s former college teammate, cornerback Byron Murphy.

Throughout mandatory minicamp this week, glimpses of Onwuzurike’s progress could be seen. On Wednesday, he was working with a member of the training staff, doing a series of leaps while restrained by resistance bands. A day later, that progressed to running a handful of reps in positional drills with his teammates before going off on his own to hit the sled several times.

Baby steps, to be sure, but steps forward, nonetheless.

“I’m in good spirits,” he said. “You see me moving around. I’m moving around good. Our training staff, they’re taking care of me, they’ve got a lot of good stuff for me. So, I’m enjoying all that. … I’m pretty confident. We don’t know when (I’ll be cleared), but based on all the stuff I’m doing now, I feel good about it. It’s just time, really.”

jdrogers@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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