ALLEN PARK, Mich. — It’s been 510 days since the Detroit Lions selected Illinois running back Mikel Leshoure in the second round of the 2011 NFL Draft with the 57th pick overall.
Finally, at long last, it’s time to see what Leshoure can do in a regular-season NFL game when the Lions face the Tennessee Titans Sunday afternoon.
After missing all of last season following surgery for a torn Achilles’ tendon — plus the first two games this season because of a suspension for two offseason marijuana arrests — Leshoure is expected to make his much-anticipated debut.
Nobody is more eager to see what Leshoure can do than his teammates, including center Dominic Raiola.
“We’ve been waiting for this,” Raiola said. “His potential is unreal, the way he looks in practice. I think he’s awesome.
“But show me. You know what I’m saying? I want to see for myself. I want to see him be great. I think he’s one of the bigger pieces that we’ve been missing for a couple years now.
“He’s got top-end speed. He’s a downhill runner that can hit the hole. He’ll run somebody over. He can make somebody miss. I think he’s got it all.”
Leshoure, who is 6-foot, 230 pounds, was showing Raiola and everybody else what he could do before suffering the Achilles’ injury early in training camp last year.
It’s been a long, winding road back to this point for him. He hasn’t played in a real game since Dec. 30, 2010 when he was named the MVP of the Texas Bowl after rushing for 184 yards and three touchdowns in a victory over Baylor.
“It’s been ups and downs,” Leshoure said, describing his journey since draft day. “Off-the-field issues that I’ve definitely learned from. That’s made me better today.
“As far as a football player, I feel like I’m a little bit smarter. I feel like I got a little bit of a grasp of things as far as the NFL goes, game speed and things of that nature. But now it’s time to put it all together and get out there and play in a real game.”
Asked if he has any doubts about what he can still do in coming back from such a severe injury, Leshoure didn’t hesitate.
“No doubts, no doubts, no doubts, no doubts,” he said. “Nope.”
Hampered by a leg injury for much of training camp this year, Leshoure was limited to two preseason games. He rushed for a total of 44 yards and one touchdown on 20 carries, and caught two passes for 39 yards.
Obviously, not the most impressive rushing statistics, but he still showed enough with limited blocking in those exhibitions that he should be an upgrade for the run game.
The Lions rank 25th out of 32 NFL teams in rushing yards per game with an 82.5 average after two weeks. They’re 19th in yards per carry at 3.8.
What’s alarming is that opposing defenses are trying so hard to contain Calvin Johnson and the passing attack that they’re putting fewer and fewer defenders near the line of scrimmage.
Still, the Lions have struggled to run the ball.
The question is whether Leshoure can help turn that around.
“He’s a big back, he’s hard to take down,” Johnson said. “He brings a lot of excitement.”
Offensive coordinator Scott Linehan wouldn’t disclose what type of workload he expects to give Leshoure against the Titans.
Leshoure wasn’t allowed to practice with the team during the suspension. He returned to the field Wednesday after working out on his own for the last two weeks.
“He’s had a good week,” Linehan said. “Got a lot of reps. He’s getting himself ready to play. We’ll figure out how much that is Saturday night (when the game plan is finalized).”
Some rookie-type jitters would be normal for Leshoure, especially considering it’s been such a long layoff for him.
Leshoure, however, insisted he’ll sleep just fine Saturday night.
“I’m pretty amped,” he said. “It’s everything I’ve dreamed of. I’ve been in the NFL for almost two years now. I’m ready to roll.
“But I don’t think I’ll be too amped to the point where I’m losing focus or I’m too excited and forget something.”
Part of his punishment from the league includes an additional two-game fine, which means he’s making his debut for free.
“It’s part of what happened,” Leshoure said. “I’ve just got to go out and deal with it.”
He’s dealt with a lot over the last year. Some of it was misfortune. Some of it was his own doing.
Now it’s time to put it all aside and show why Raiola and others are so excited that he’s finally ready to join them.
Rookie cornerback Bill Bentley, who missed last week’s game after suffering a concussion in the opener, was officially cleared for contact as of Thursday.
“I’m feeling great,” he said.
Bentley confirmed that it was his first concussion.
“Little weird,” he said. “It was just a normal concussion. They were just playing it on the safe side. They just felt it was in my best interests to sit out last week.”
… Johnson (ankle) returned to practice after sitting out Wednesday. Tight end Tony Scheffler (calf) and defensive tackle Corey Williams (knee) did not practice again.