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Okwara splitting time between defensive line and linebackers

Julian Okwara is getting a double dose of coaching heading into his third NFL season.

The Lions are tapping into Okwara's versatility by cross-training him as both an on-the-ball defensive end and an off-the-ball linebacker this offseason, which means he splits his time between defensive line coach Todd Wash's room and linebackers coach Kelvin Sheppard's room.

"Coach Shep was a middle linebacker when he was playing in the league ... even the transition from rookie to my second year just understanding coverage, I think he made a huge impact in just my understanding of coverage," Okwara said after Thursday's open OTA practice.

"Just being in his room and hearing what the linebackers are saying in terms of communication ... and then some days go to coach Wash's room and be able to hear what the d-line is talking about and be able learn from them. I think it's just a combination of two great lines I can learn from."

Okwara even joked that it really works out well for him going between each room because he gets double the dinners courtesy of the rookies in both the d-line and linebacker rooms.

Okwara played a majority of his reps last year along the defensive line and really started to come along at the end of last season, recording three sacks in his last three games and finishing with five sacks on the year to go with 27 tackles, six tackles for loss, an interception and a fumble recovery.

The Lions think his athleticism will allow him to stand up and play off the ball, so they can move him around and play the matchup game with him.

"We consider him a linebacker. He is a hybrid," Lions head coach Dan Campbell said of Okwara. "We consider him in base as a linebacker, more of a SAM linebacker or on the edge. In sub or in nickel, he becomes more of that defensive end.

"Third down he could become kind of that spin or stand up X player. But, just as far as if you're rolling out base, he's one of the guys competing in our edge, SAM linebacker."

The Lions' linebacker room is in an open competition right now, and Okwara will have a chance to carve out a significant role if his versatility continues to show up in practice and he can affect plays, which has been the case through the first two open OTA practices.

Okwara says he feels really good about the coverage aspect of playing linebacker. He has a good understanding of where his help is at, where he needs to be, and understanding leverage. But he couldn't help but lament some of the missed opportunities he had to make big plays last year, and said finishing those plays was his major goal heading into his third season.

"Last year I did alright," he said. "There were definitely a lot of plays – playing the Ravens (Week 3) I realistically missed three or four sacks in that game, honestly. That game I was sick to my stomach.

"Just small stuff like that ... make sure I'm finishing those plays. That's something I need to work on going into this year. There are plays when I'm right there, I just need to finish up."

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