Inside the Detroit Lions: Why rookie Jahlani Tavai is ready to run defense

Dave Birkett
Detroit Free Press
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In Jahlani Tavai’s five seasons at Hawaii, he played for five different defensive coordinators and four different position coaches. Each had his own twist on the defense, and each tasked Tavai with unique responsibilities.

Plenty of things impressed the Detroit Lions about Tavai in the build up to the 2019 draft, but one that stood out was how he was able to recall, with good precision, details of every defense he played in and much of what he was asked to do.

“He had a good maturity about him from his football standpoint, his football intelligence,” Lions coach Matt Patricia said. “He’s one of those college kids that’s had a bunch of different coordinators, a bunch of different schemes, a bunch of different positions, and honestly he was able to talk about all of them at a high level. So you knew the football part of it was pretty good. The football off-the-field, the study and the things like that was excellent.”

Jahlani Tavai calls the defense during the first half against the Bills, Friday.

The Lions could be counting on Tavai’s football IQ even more than they imagined this fall after Jarrad Davis suffered a leg injury in Friday’s preseason loss to the Buffalo Bills that will keep him out an undetermined amount of time.

Davis is not a candidate for injured reserve at this point, Patricia said Saturday. But Tavai, once ticketed for duty as the Lions’ fourth linebacker, is next in line to be the team’s starting middle linebacker, where he would handle the communication on a defense that’s expected to be the backbone of a team intent on improving on last year’s 6-10 record.

Davis was a big part of what little success the Lions had on the field last season.

He led the team in tackles. He finished third in sacks. He improved his pass coverage. And he was an emotional leader in the locker room, the type of lunch-pail linebacker fans, coaches and teammates love and respect.

Jarrad Davis is helped off the field after the second play of the game.

If he can't play in the regular-season opener two weeks from Sunday, the Lions will ask Tavai to replace much of what Davis did on the field, albeit with plenty of help.

“There’s a lot of other really good players out there that are helping, so I don’t really feel like anything’s on his shoulders from that standpoint,” Patricia said. “I think he’s just got to go out there and try to do his job to the best of his ability and we’ll just evaluate that.”

Tavai, you recall, was a shocking selection when the Lions made him the 43rd pick of April’s draft early in the second round.

More:Hawaii LB coach: Jahlani Tavai a 'plug-and-play' contributor

He wasn’t on the radar of fans with limited exposure to Hawaii football, and even some NFL people thought he was severely overdrafted.

Patricia, though, received text messages from some of his coaching friends not long after the pick praising the Lions’ choice and lamenting their own missed opportunity, and Tavai made a favorable impression early this summer in training camp.

He took first-team reps at one outside linebacker spot over Christian Jones on Day 1 of camp, stayed with the No. 1 defense when another outside linebacker, Devon Kennard, missed practice the next day with an injury, and moved over to the middle when the Lions held Davis out of practice for two weeks with his own minor ailment.

Jahlani Tavai.

Tavai, in fact, never left the first-team defense, and with the Lions’ returning starters at linebacker together for the first time Friday, the Lions still thought enough of the rookie to create a role for him. He started in a four-linebacker set against the Bills, stacked in the middle of the field next to Davis, who was injured on the game’s second play from scrimmage.

“I’m not worried about Jahlani handling it at all,” Kennard said after the game. “He’s fit in well and he composes himself great and he’s locked in and ready to go. He’s learned the defense incredibly fast and he’s right in the mix. So it doesn’t matter where he’s from, we’re out here, we’re all teammates and we’re trying to win.”

Tavai called Davis “a great teammate” and “hell of a player,” and said he’ll be sorely missed for however long he’s out.

“He’s somebody that I strive to become and just things that I can pick up on, he really helps me out,” Tavai said. “Everybody in the LB room is like that, so I’m just grateful for having this opportunity to play alongside them.”

And until Davis returns, they’ll have much more of an opportunity to play alongside Tavai.

“I hate seeing any of my brothers really go down like that,” Tavai said. “I don’t know how to explain that situation, it’s just, it’s tough seeing anybody that you care for on the field, any guy that you’re playing alongside just go down. Like I said, it’s a next-man-up mentality and we just got to make sure we stay on that pace and don’t take a step back.”

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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