Lions cautiously optimistic about Levi Onwuzurike’s recovery

Detroit News

Allen Park — Levi Onwuzurike’s recovery is still a work in progress, but the Detroit Lions have to be thrilled by the status of their former second-round defensive tackle, who appears to finally be healthy, after missing his entire sophomore season with back injuries.

The 25-year-old Onwuzurike, who’s been plagued with back issues since before he arrived in Allen Park, has been “able to fight, strain and grind,” during this training camp, according to defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn.

“Take coaching, take all of that aside…take the coaching hat off. (I’m speaking as) a former player…it feels good for him. It feels good for us to see that.”

The road to recovery hasn’t been without its bumps. Glenn talked about a situation in practice a few days ago in which Onwuzurike got caught up in a play that forced the player’s back to bend. If Glenn’s being honest, it was scary.

“My first reaction was like, ‘Whoa,’ and man, he just got up, got back into the huddle and got to the next play, and I felt really, really good about that. The fact of the matter that he can go through that, it tells me, it tells him more than anything, ‘I’m OK. I’m OK.’”

Onwuzurike played 16 injury-riddled games as a rookie and made 35 tackles — including two for loss — and he had one sack before being forced to miss the entire 2022 season. It’s been a long time since he’s played a full, healthy season — he was named first-team All-Pac-12 in 2019 with 45 tackles, six tackles for loss and two sacks in his final season at the University of Washington; he opted of the 2020 Covid season before going to Detroit at pick No. 41 in the 2021 NFL Draft.

Glenn said he had a conversation with Onwuzurike over the offseason about what the path forward looked like. He’s not sure how close Onwuzurike was to considering retirement, but “when you have an injury, especially that, I’m sure you think about it.” There was a time where it looked like Onwuzurike may never put the pads on again.

“I said, ‘Levi, listen. If you’re going to do this, then let’s go all-in. Let’s go all-in. Let’s go play,’” Glenn recalled. “And he said, ‘I’m with you, coach.’ And that showed up in practice, especially on that play.”

Glenn is excited about what Onwuzurike will bring to their interior pass rush when he can return to the field without limitation, but it’s a cautious excitement. The reality is Onwuzurike’s development is a little behind.

“Levi’s naturally strong as a player. Obviously, he didn’t get a chance to do all of the weight room work that you want him to do, so I will say that player is still in the developmental phase also, because he didn’t really get a chance to do the things that’s expected of a defensive lineman coming into the NFL,” Glenn said.

“He still has a ways to go, but I like exactly where he’s at.”

nbianchi@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @nolanbianchi

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