- Michael Rothstein, ESPN Staff Writer
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ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- He needed the experience. He wanted the opportunity. Yet for the first three years of Willie Young's career in Detroit, he mostly sat.
Watched. Waited. Understood he had a very specific role in the Lions defense as an end rushing opposing quarterbacks, backing up veterans Cliff Avril and Kyle Vanden Bosch, the same guys he was learning from every day.
They taught him how to be a professional. Meanwhile, he had no choice but to bide his time. This, in some ways, was Detroit’s plan all along for Young when the Lions drafted him in the seventh round out of North Carolina State in 2010.
They saw a raw pass-rusher with a lot of skills that needed to be funneled into production. It was frustrating, but in some ways necessary for the success he is having now in his first year as a starter for Detroit.
“It’s all about growing up,” Young said. “All about growing up in this league. You just got to understand your position, understand your role and take advantage of every opportunity you get.”
He realizes how few those opportunities were initially. He played seven snaps his rookie season, 238 his second year and 307 his third year. That may sound like a lot, but then consider a third of the way through this season, Young has already played 223 snaps and has come close to matching his production from those other seasons.
He already matched his career-high in solo tackles (nine) and is one tackle away from tying his career-high in total tackles. He has 13 total tackles and only one sack this season, but he has become an integral part of a defensive line that is among the best in the NFL.
This opportunity started at the end of last season. Avril and Vanden Bosch did not return to Detroit, leaving holes on the Lions defensive line.
When Detroit drafted Young, the Lions coaches always envisioned him sliding into a larger role. Now that would happen.
“You’ve always seen the talent with him,” Lions defensive line coach Kris Kocurek said. “You always knew Willie was, every time we put him in a game he always seemed to be around the quarterback, affecting the quarterback.
“You hoped as he got more experience under his belt that he would progress to where he is right now. We drafted him four years ago in the seventh round, we weren’t drafting a guy we didn’t think could play. We knew he had talent. His talent had to develop.”
What stood out to coaches initially and even to players now is how fast his first and second steps are. His explosion at the snap is part natural and part cultivated from studying offensive tackles and understanding where blocks are coming from.
When Detroit’s veteran defensive ends left and the Lions brought Israel Idonije in from Chicago, it was the first thing he noticed.
“He just has a lot of natural ability and a skill set,” Idonije said. “His quickness. His speed. Me coming in and watching him, he still has a ceiling he hasn’t reached. That’s what is exciting to watch about him.
“Just all the ability he has, he really understands that defensive end position and that dance between him and the O-lineman and putting together his personal plan of attack for the week. It’s going to be great to watch him for years to come.”
With Avril and Vanden Bosch gone, Young said he spends time with Idonije, picking up different tricks and hints the former Chicago Bear has used throughout his career to be successful as Young gets his first chance at a major role.
That goes back to the opportunity, the one Young waited for. The one that left him frustrated at times during his first three years. He always believed he had the ability to play as he is now, he just hadn’t received the chance to show it.
Multiple times in a 10-minute conversation, Young referenced being a professional, and learning how to be consistent. This season, combined with those opportunities, he has.
“That’s a part of my game, man,” Young said. “Always been a part of my game plan. Just, my opportunities, I have opportunities to get quality snaps and you’re just now able to see what I’m capable of doing.”