MIKE O'HARA

O'HARA: Willson's unlikely journey to NFL, Lions

Posted May 15, 2018

Tight end Luke Willson is another example of how there really are no borders or boundaries in football that can’t be crossed or overcome in the search for talent.

Luke Willson is another example of how there really are no borders or boundaries in football that can’t be crossed or overcome in the search for talent.

Willson has made an unlikely journey to reach a point in his NFL career where he could be a key member of the Detroit Lions’ offense.

That would have seemed to be a longshot when Willson was growing up across the Detroit River in the Windsor suburb of LaSalle. He followed the path of his older brothers, Eric and Greg, to play baseball and football instead of Canada’s national sport of hockey.

“I always wanted to do what they did as a kid,” Willson said. “They started playing football, so I started playing football.”

Luke’s natural athletic ability made him good at both. He played on Canada’s national junior baseball team in 2008, and was recruited to play football at Rice – with the help of putting together his own video highlights to send to the school’s coaching staff.

Willson made the right choice in football. He was good enough to be taken in the fifth round of the 2013 draft by the Seattle Seahawks. After five seasons in Seattle – where he was part of a Super Bowl champion as a rookie – he was signed by the Lions early in free agency to be part of a makeover of the tight end position.

With the two veterans from last year signed elsewhere – Eric Ebron (Colts) and Darren Fells (Browns) -- Willson could expand the role he filled in the Seahawks’ rotation as a versatile, athletic receiving specialist.

With the Lions still in the early stages of their offseason program, Willson isn’t making any claims on where he might fit.

“At the end of the day, it’ll be the coaches’ decision,” Willson said. “They’ve got to learn me, and I’ve got to learn this offense. That stuff will iron itself out.

”I’ll do whatever I’m asked to do. I kind of pride myself on being a competitive guy. If they want me to block, I’ll block. If they want me to run routes, I’ll run routes. I’ll let them decide what my role is, especially this time of year.

“I’ll work every day to get better and let them decide where I fit.”

Willson’s natural athletic ability is part of what has allowed him to fit in – with some adjustments along the way.

According to NFL.com, at 6-5 and 251 pounds, Willson had times of 4.57 and 4.46 seconds in the 40-yard dash at his Pro Day before the 2013 draft. He also had a 38-inch vertical jump, a standing broad jump of 10 feet, 2 inches and 23 reps of 225 pounds in the bench press.

By comparison, that 4.46 40 time would have been the best of any tight end who competed in this year’s Combine. Willson would have tied for first in the bench press, second in the broad jump and tied for second in the vertical jump.

When he got to college, Willson had to adjust to the different rules from Canada to the United States. The Canadian field is 110 yards long by 65 wide compared to 100 by 53.3 in the U.S. Other basic differences were three downs on offense compared to four, and 12 players per side compared to 11.

Ironically, when he got to Rice he felt like he had less room to operate than he did playing under the Canadian rules with an extra player because of the bigger fields and the fact that he was allowed to go in motion before the snap.

“Honestly, because the field is narrower, it actually felt like there were more people on the field,” he said.

He adjusted quickly with the Seahawks. As a rookie he played all 16 regular-season games with seven starts and all three in the playoffs as a backup. In the regular season he caught 20 passes for 272 yards, one touchdown and an average of 13.6 yards per catch. He had two catches in the blowout win over the Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII.

In his five seasons in Seattle he played 72 of 80 regular-season games with 37 starts and had 89 catches, 11 TDs and an average of 12.7 yards per catch. In his role he averaged about one-third of the offensive snaps per game, plus playing on special teams.

Willson enjoyed his time in Seattle, but he’s looking forward to the fresh challenge that awaits him as he returns to his roots to play for the team that he cheered for growing up.

“It feels different, in the sense it’s fresh faces and a fresh team,” he said. “It’s a fresh everything for me personally. These coaches don’t know me. I want to prove myself.”