08/23/12Author: Drew Sharp - Detroit Free Press
Willie Young has star potential, joking aside
DETROIT -- Willie Young doesn't fit the conventional template of the mammoth NFL defensive lineman systematically wreaking havoc. He doesn't walk around with a perpetual scowl on his face. His level of verbal articulation extends far beyond guttural, indecipherable grunts. And he isn't solely motivated by the musky scent of approaching quarterback red meat.
"I don't come off like that," Young said. "I play football because I love football. Would I put my body through this if I didn't? It's a passion, and I enjoy having fun."
But it's that disarming impishness that perhaps explains why Young lasted until the seventh round three years ago, when the Lions plucked him from North Carolina State. Young certainly was talented, but a little too casual for a position that demands commitment bordering on the maniacal.
Ndamukong Suh walks around the locker room as if he's stalking Hansel and Gretel for a late-afternoon snack. Suh comes across as angry, begging the question of what's so troublesome about his life that he's constantly finding fault in others for his own issues.
But nobody questions Suh's football motor.
Young admits he's more mature, learning how to better balance the fun of playing football with the business of playing football at his highest level possible. He might be the Lions' next breakout player, improving the defensive line's depth while also making it easier to make the hard choices demanded from a hard salary cap.
If Young progresses as a playmaker, the Lions could more affordably let Cliff Avril leave next winter.
"The big word you said there was 'if,'" Young said Wednesday, August 22, when asked about his value to the team this season. "I don't think about what might happen down the road. It's all about what I need to do on this given day."
Young, a 6-foot-5, 251-pound end, said if there's one thing he had learned in his third year, it was that earning the coaches' trust might be the greatest challenge. Any reluctance could be a result of the perception that, because Young comes across as jovial and fun-loving, he perhaps isn't as seriously dedicated to the defensive lineman's mission statement -- relentless nastiness.
"I'm sure that's what maybe caused him not to be drafted until the seventh round," defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham said after Wednesday's practice.
Cunningham also said he hoped that Nick Fairley, a first-rounder whose maturity and dedication are under scrutiny, could learn from Young's early difficulties.
"It didn't just turn on in my second year," Young said. "My numbers now are pretty similar to my numbers in my first four preseason games (in 2010). But the coaches know me better now. I know them better. This is a business. It's a profession, and you have to take it seriously.
"I come in here smiling. Obviously, I was being heard a little bit. But that's my personality -- outspoken, laughing and joking with everybody. But I figured out that I had to gain the coaches' trust and that required being more professional, I guess."
It has been thoroughly chronicled in this column -- ad nauseam -- over the seemingly endless years of Lions futility that a telling indicator of sustained playoff competitiveness would be this franchise's ability in developing low-round draft picks into productive contributors.
The consistently good teams have no problems letting good, expensive players go when they know they have good, cheaper replacements available.
Young could wind up having the last laugh.comments powered by Disqus