Hawaii LB coach: Detroit Lions pick Jahlani Tavai a 'plug-and-play' contributor

Dave Birkett
Detroit Free Press
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Hawaii linebackers coach Mark Banker was watching Day 2 of the NFL draft last month when he was reminded of his time as an assistant coach with the San Diego Chargers.

Every year, it seemed, the Chargers made a draft pick or two that caught the network airing the draft off guard. The team would turn in its pick, there were no highlights to be played, and Chargers owners Alex Spanos would ask his son, Dean, ‘What the hell’s the story?’ as the network cut to commercial.

“It reminded me when Jahlani was taken,” Banker said. “They started talking about the kid from (Missouri), the quarterback, and then never came back.”

The Detroit Lions took Hawaii linebacker Jahlani Tavai in the second round of last month’s draft, No. 43 overall, one pick after the Denver Broncos traded up to select Missouri quarterback Drew Lock.

Both networks broadcasting the event, ESPN and NFL Network, glossed over the Lions’ pick while providing extended commentary on Lock, and that helped fuel the mystery of Tavai, a player few Lions fans had ever heard of before they saw his name flash across the ticker.

Hawaii linebacker Jahlani Tavai runs through a group of Army soldiers before the start of a game against Navy at Aloha Stadium, Sept. 1, 2018.

Lions general manager Bob Quinn, naturally, was ecstatic about adding Tavai after the draft and insisted the Hawaii linebacker would not have lasted much longer had the Lions not taken him when they did.

Banker said he heard that Tavai had third- to fifth-round draft grades, and he told his linebackers during a dinner the night before the draft that he expected Tavai to go in Round 3.

But while Hawaii players felt disrespected by the lack of discussion about Tavai on TV, Banker said the networks’ lack of knowledge about one of the Rainbow Warriors’ leading tacklers last year is no indication of the type of player the Lions landed for their defense.

“He is a plug and play,” Banker said. “When I studied the Jets defense when (Bill) Belichick was the defensive coordinator there (in the late ‘90s) and I followed (Bryan) Cox on the field, he was a middle linebacker, he was an outside backer on the edge and then all of a sudden he had his hand in the dirt. He’s that kind of guy where he’s just not stuck with that position. He can move around in the front.”

Tavai started four of his five years at Hawaii and filled several roles on the defense.

Hawaii linebacker Jahlani Tavai.

He played as an outside linebacker as a redshirt freshman in 2015, when he had 56 tackles and three sacks. He started at middle linebacker the next two years and topped 120 tackles each season. And last year, Tavai again played middle linebacker, though Banker said that doesn’t begin to do Tavai justice in how he was used.

“He was more than that in the scheme that we brought in with us,” Banker said. “He played our mike (middle) ‘backer. He played our sam (strong-side) ‘backer, which is traditionally down on the line of scrimmage, outside the tight end in our base package. But then we have another package called peso where we have a nickel in but we take the nose out and we make that sam ‘backer a strong-side defensive end who rushes the passer and/or can drop. And so many of the (odd-front) teams nowadays, they use the weakside end in that manner, where he’s that quote-unquote hybrid where he can drop. He has cover ability or he can come off the edge and rush the passer.”

Quinn said the Lions were drawn to Tavai by his size (6-2, 250 pounds) and versatility, noting that “linebackers that play in this defense that are really very, very good natural fits, there’s only a couple every year.”

“You see him on the film play on the edge, you see him set the edge, you see him rush the passer and then two snaps later, he’s playing mike bubble linebacker coming downhill and smashing a guard,” Quinn said. “There’s guys that can do that. A lot of guys in the draft, I’d say every year there’s a very select few guys that you can actually see them do it on film. You’re projecting.”

The Lions are projecting plenty with Tavai, too. His speed is a question and he’s coming off season-ended shoulder surgery that left him unable to do workouts until late spring.

Hawaii linebacker Jahlani Tavai in the fourth quarter against Air Force at Falcon Stadium, Oct. 22, 2016.

But Banker said Tavai, who he compared to former Chargers linebacker Gerald Dixon, brings added value as a player beyond his size and versatility.

Banker said Tavai was a solid special-teams player when asked to contribute, a team leader who took part in meetings and stayed around the program as long as possible after his injury, and “the heart and soul” of the defense whose instincts and playmaking ability were on display in big games against option teams Navy (nine tackles) and Army (15 tackles).

“It’s not a matter of a jack of all trades and master of none,” Banker said. “For us, in our scheme of things, he did a great job at each one of those things because of the fact (he has) other intangibles. He’s great in the classroom. He does understand scheme. And he’s an effort guy. He gives great effort. So you take whatever he weighed and measured at, 6-2.5 and 245 or 250 pounds or whatever, there’s a lot there. And the good thing is whatever they saw on the film at college, he will improve at this next level.”

Contact Dave Birkett at Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett. Read more on the Detroit Lions and sign up for our Lions newsletter.


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