O'Hara: Willie Young's stock continues to rise

Posted Aug 19, 2012

It is nice to be young, with the opportunities for a career to blossom in front of you.

It is especially nice if you’re Willie Young – a young defensive end who can see, feel and hear the impact he has made on the Lions’ defense and special teams in the first two exhibition games.

He had a sack and a quarterback hit in the first game against Cleveland. The sack caused a fumble, which Young recovered to complete a defensive lineman’s version of the triathlon – sack, fumble, get the ball.

On Friday night in Baltimore, Young blocked a punt and had a tackle on defense.

That is good production in two games for Young, whose stock is going in the opposite direction of Facebook’s - his is rising - in his third season with the Lions.

The defensive line is stacked at tackle and end, but Young’s role and playing time at left end are expanding. The play of the special teams has been disappointing, and Young provided a lift.

The punt block came on the first play of the fourth quarter. It set up the offense at the Ravens’ 34 and gave the Lions the opportunity to stretch their 17-9 lead. That didn’t happen when the offense fumbled the ball away in scoring territory.

Except for Young’s punt block and a 50-yard field goal that would have been good from 60 yards – at least – by Jason Hanson, there wasn’t much to like about the way the special teams performed against the Ravens.

The coverage team was bailed out by penalties on long returns by the Ravens, and one good return by the Lions was called back by a flagrant block in the back.

Any player hoping to win a roster spot on special teams should be concerned about head coach Jim Schwartz’s comments after the game.

“We’ve got to find better players to be able to execute,” Schwartz said. “You can do all the drills you want, but if a a guy can’t make the play, he can’t make the play. We’ve got to find guys that can, on kickoff cover and punt cover.

“We were poor on those areas.”

The ultimate way to make up for poor coverage is to block a punt. Young did that.

Doing it against the Ravens is no small feat, even in the exhibition.

Before John Harbaugh became head coach of the Ravens in 2008, he spent nine of his previous 10 seasons as special teams coordinator of the Eagles.

In six seasons as Baltimore’s punter, Sam Koch had only two punts blocked.

There are a lot of components involved in a punt block.

One is the visual experience of fans watching in the stands and on television.

Punting is such a routine exercise that the fans and TV cameras automatically shift their focus to the return man. With a block, the camera suddenly swings back to the area of the punt, and the mad scramble of players trying to get the ball.

The change in field position – about 50 yards, from the point of recovery to the spot on a normal return – and momentum swing can be significant.

As he talked about the punt block after the game, Young massaged his fingers. He was still feeling the effects of getting both hands on the ball.

“It stings pretty good,” he said.

He could hear the sound of the ball thudding against his hands.

“Doop,” is how Young described it.

A punter creates enormous energy and torque at the moment of impact, and Young felt its effects. It wasn’t a bad feeling, though. The payoff – the block – was worth it.

“That might be why my fingertips hurt right now,” he said.

Young came to the Lions as a seventh-round draft pick in 2010. He had talent, but Schwartz has said that Young wasn’t ready for the demands of being a pro. He needed to mature, and he did that last year, getting three sacks in limited time in the defensive line’s rotation.

There is an expectation in the Lions’ hierarchy that Young will continue to develop.

Young is good natured and outgoing, and he spoke Friday night about what he needs to do to solidify his status.

“Be on time,” he said. “Be sure to execute my assignments.”

Has Schwartz left any doubt about his demands?

“I assure you,” Young said, “he has laid the rules out.”