Lions rookie CB Slay making progress in training camp

DETROIT — Near the end of the Lions’ practice Tuesday morning, Calvin Johnson ran out wide, to the left of the formation.

Darius Slay set up in front of him.

Now, as a rookie cornerback in the NFL, you can do a few things when facing the best receiver on the planet:

Fall down and start crying.

Fake an injury.

Or try to compete.

And that’s what Slay did.

Johnson exploded off the line. Cut sharply. And quarterback Matthew Stafford hit Johnson on a short dig route. Slay closed quickly and wrapped his arms around Johnson, simulating a tackle.

“I’m learning a lot from him,” Slay said. “I can’t just let him run free. I have to get my hands on him.”

Slay, 6-feet-1, wants to play against Megatron. He relishes the challenge. And that’s what has veterans smiling while talking about this rookie from Mississippi State.

“I know if I can compete against him, I’m competing against one of the best,” Slay said. “He’s tough to guard. It’s his height! He can catch everything around him.”

Slay, a second-round pick, is big, fast and has freakishly long arms. Best of all, he’s a quick learner. And he’s part of the reason the Lions’ secondary has gone from a glaring weakness to, well, wow, this is hard to imagine. The Lions’ secondary doesn’t stink anymore.

In fact, it has the potential to be above average, if not downright good.

“Slay is very confident,” said Glover Quin, the Lions’ new safety. “When you have a young corner, that’s what you want. You want somebody who is confident to go out there against anybody.”

Slay started getting first-team reps when Ron Bartell suffered a shoulder injury. And Slay is starting to look like a starter.

“He’s picked things up very quickly,” coach Jim Schwartz said. “He is matched up well against a lot of different types of receivers, from the smaller guys to Calvin Johnson. It seems like every day he breaks up a ball or gets his hands on a football. He is on the right path right now and we are going to keep him there.”

This Lions’ secondary is an interesting mix of characters.

Louis Delmas is the emotional leader. The Lions are handling Delmas with kid gloves, bringing him along slowly and making sure he is healthy for the first game.

Quin is the cagy, five-year veteran, a great locker-room presence who is playbook smart and always getting everybody into the right position. “I’m trying to be a leader, trying to guide them along, telling them things I’ve learned over the years,” Quin said. “We are developing.”

Chris Houston gives the Lions a consistent, reliable $25-million corner on the left side.

And then, there is Bill Bentley. Mr. Energy. He’s spirited. Fun. Disciplined. A playmaker who is hungry and could play corner or nickel back.

The trick is keeping them all healthy and playing together.

“That’s what it’s all about, jelling as one,” Bentley said.

Last year, the secondary had problems communicating. Then again, it’s hard to communicate when you don’t know each other’s name. It seemed as if there was a new starting group every week because of a rash of injuries.

But the secondary looks stable now. If they all stay healthy.

Slay has three hobbies, in no particular order.

Playing basketball. Playing video games. And four-wheeling.

And all three play a role in playing corner in the NFL.

First, there is the risk taking, the four-wheeler.

“Oh, it’s the excitement, the adrenaline,” he said with a smile, talking about his love for flying around on four-wheelers. “You are going fast and jumping around. Now I don’t do that any more now. Can’t do it.”

And then there is the basketball player. The guy who feared no one. The little point guard who always guarded the best player on the other team.

And then there is the video game player. The guy who loves playing “Call of Duty.” What happens after a video game? You hit reset and start another game. And that’s how he approaches playing cornerback. With a short memory. Hit reset and start again.

Will there be ups and downs? Of course. Slay is still learning technique. He’s learning how to use those long arms.

But he looks like a good one.

“I came to compete and get a starting position,” Slay said. “I’m loving the team aspect around here. Everybody is around here competing and trying to make plays. That’s all you can do.”

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Posted by Tribune News Services

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