O'HARA: Undrafted rookie LaAdrian Waddle impressed in his first start

Posted Nov 1, 2013

Lions showcasing depth with their next-man-up mentality

There was no rousing speech, no soul-testing stare-down from his position coach when rookie LaAdrian Waddle was told he would make his first pro start at right tackle on the Lions’ offensive line in a game that could be the balance point in the team’s season.

That dramatic stuff happens in beer commercials and B movies that are released on video and never make it to the theatre.

After the team meeting late Saturday evening, offensive line coach Jeremiah Washburn told Waddle that he was starting the next day against the Cowboys before a full house that would rock Ford Field. It wasn’t a complete surprise to Waddle, based on how practice had gone during the week, but he had no certainty about his status until Washburn gave him the word.

LaAdrian WaddleT LaAdrian Waddle (Photo: G.Smith/Detroit Lions)

"He just came up and told me that I had the green light to go," Waddle said earlier this week. "He just told me, ‘Go out there and do what you do.’"

It was that cut and dried.The Lions have a next-man-up operating policy when it comes to make changes based on injury or performance, and Waddle was the next man who had to be up to the challenge.

It didn’t matter that Waddle was an undrafted rookie out of Texas Tech who had been signed as a free agent, or that Waddle had gotten extended playing time on the line in only one of the previous seven games. Washburn expected him to meet the standard and to play well.

"He didn’t seem too concerned," Waddle said. "You could tell by the way he came off that he wasn’t too worried."

The veterans on the offensive line treated Waddle like he belonged – with an expectation that he perform.

"I didn’t say a word to him," said center Dominic Raiola, who played his 196th game Sunday.

Worried about the rookie?

"No, not at all," Raiola said. "I thought the kid looked pretty talented. He’s so big."

Big, he is. Waddle is 6-6 and 321 pounds. His size and ability impressed the coaching staff from the time he signed and took part in the offseason workout program.

The play of the offensive line against the Cowboys, including Waddle’s performance, has gone largely overlooked. That’s understandable, considering the way the game ended – Matthew Stafford sneaking a yard for the winning TD – and the offensive fireworks led by Calvin Johnson’s 329 receiving yards and Stafford’s 488 yards passing.

The line protected Stafford, allowing only one sack and giving him time to find his receivers, and it opened enough holes for the running game to accumulate 143 yards. Reggie Bush led the way with 92 yards on 21 carries.

Waddle played well enough to be given the belt that is awarded each week to the offensive lineman who has the best game. It was hanging in Waddle’s locker Tuesday morning.

"It’s basically the lineman who had the best performance each week," Waddle said.

Waddle has experienced a seven-month period of extreme changes, and it mirrors what has happened to the offensive line this year. He went from undrafted rookie to prospect to starter.

For the previous two seasons, the offensive line was a rock of stability. In 33 games, including the playoff loss to New Orleans after the 2011 season, the five-man unit of Jeff Backus, Rob Sims, Dominic Raiola, Stephen Peterman and Gosder Cherilus started every game together except one.

Backus missed last season’s Thanksgiving Day game against the Packers because of a hamstring injury and was replaced at left tackle by Riley Reiff.

An extreme makeover was made in the offseason, with three new starters and a new position coach, with Washburn taking over when George Yarno was not brought back. Washburn had spent the previous four years as Yarno’s assistant.

On the line, Backus retired and was replaced by Reiff. Peterman was released. Rookie Larry Warford, a third-round draft pick, has started every game at right guard.

Right tackle has been a revolving door because of injuries. Jason Fox has started two games and Corey Hilliard five. Hilliard went down with a knee injury two weeks ago in the loss to Cincinnati. That left the choice of a starter between Waddle and Fox, and Waddle got the job.

Having three starters at right tackle in eight games is one more move than the entire line had in the previous to years.

Waddle’s  only extended playing time before the Dallas game was against Cincinnati, when Reiff and Hilliard both went down with injuries. First Waddle spelled Reiff at left tackle. When Hilliard went out, Waddle moved to right tackle and Reiff gutted out the rest of the game at left tackle.

In all, Waddle played 43 snaps against Cincy.

In some ways, that was more difficult than starting and playing a full game against the Cowboys.

"Probably running in at left, then running in at right was harder," Waddle said. "I think it easier to go in from the get-go. You get going, you get a feel for the other guys, and all that other stuff."