NAPA, Calif. – If Tuesday’s practice against the Oakland Raiders was a showcase to gauge Kerryon Johnson’s development, the rookie running back showed that he’s on a track to make an impact on the Detroit Lions’ offense.
Johnson was asked to do a lot of things as a runner, receiver and in the return game, and he did a lot of them well.
It was a good test – and just that, a test, not a final grade – for Johnson and other young players on the roster to see how they would perform in the first of two days of live practices against the Raiders. The two teams meet in the opening preseason game Friday night in Oakland.
There was an obvious rise in the intensity level from the first nine days of training camp, when the Lions had worked against teammates back in Allen Park.
Facing players from another team, with the boisterous Raiders’ fans cheering and booing, ramped up the competitive juices for both teams.
“That’s real live football,” Johnson said after practice. “You’re really getting tackled. You can’t say you tackled somebody. You can’t say you broke a tackle. You’ve got to go out and do it.”
Johnson went out and did it.
He finished off the day in the goal line drill by barely reaching the end zone on a one-yard run on a fourth-down play. The Raiders had stopped two runs by LeGarrette Blount and one by Johnson.
“For us and the offensive line, that’s as close to a game as we’re going to get in this week,” Johnson said.
It was a close call as to whether Johnson had really made it to the end zone. Raiders linebacker Tahir Whitehead, a former Lion, claimed good-naturedly that the TD would have been wiped out on replay.
“Tahir plays for Oakland” Johnson said. “That’s what he’s going to say.
“The ref said I’m. So I’m in.”
Given the Lions’ struggles in short-yardage situations last year, converting in a short-yardage drill was a sign of progress.
Before that run, Johnson had done well in other areas.
In one sequence in the team drill, he broke a good gain on a run off left guard, then broke another one off the right side a few plays later. He made a catch over the middle with his hands extended. And in the kickoff return drill he dipped his left shoulder to accelerate through a crease without breaking stride.
The only obvious blemish on Johnson’s day was his inability to come up with a pass that was slightly off target. It was one that he should catch most of the time, given the sure-handedness he has shown.
With a lot of eyes on the running game and everything – and everybody – that goes into it, it was a good day’s work for Johnson and his teammates.
Johnson took it for what it was, a day of practice, but in a different atmosphere.
“This is our practice – go out there every day and get our work in,” he said. “Today, it’s just another team on the other side of the ball, which is different. It makes it more fun.
“The fans made it even better. Everybody’s tired of hitting each other for however many weeks. It’s a new face, a new venue for us. It made it fun, and it made it like a real game.”
Head coach Matt Patricia said before practice that he wanted to see how young players would adjust to being on the field with someone other than their teammates.
“It certainly brings a different element from that standpoint of competitiveness and, obviously, just an evaluation standpoint,” Patricia said. “For Kerryon, just continually trying to evaluate the consistency and his ability to grasp the overall concept of the offense right now.
“He’s got a long way to go, but he’s working hard at it.”