ALLEN PARK, Mich. — When the Detroit Lions failed to address their weaknesses at cornerback either during free agency or early in the NFL Draft, the heat was turned up on one player in particular.
If Darius Slay, a second-round draft pick last year, doesn’t live up to their expectations, the Lions’ secondary could be in complete disarray this season.
Teammate Rashean Mathis had been telling Slay that he’s the "future of this team," but that really sunk in during the offseason when the Lions released Chris Houston, who had signed a five-year contract just a year ago but was hampered by a severe toe injury.
"I think that definitely opened his (Slay’s) eyes up," safety Glover Quin said.
"For him to realize (that so much more is expected of him now) and not put too much pressure on himself is huge," Mathis, the other starting cornerback, said of Slay. "I think he’s done that."
Slay (6-foot, 192 pounds) was given a starting job a year ago coming out of training camp, but he lost it early in the season.
A knee injury hampered him in the middle of the season, but Slay simply played too much like a rookie more often than not.
Quin said he’s sees a big difference now.
"Oh man, his confidence is at an all-time high," Quin said. "He’s playing at a high level right now these first few days of training camp. He’s come in with that mentality that ‘You’re not going to catch the ball on me.’
"There’s pressure on him to make plays for us. He’s accepted the challenge. He comes out every day like he’s the guy.
"I think something clicked and Slay understood that he’s the guy and he’s playing like it."
None of it really matters until Slay does it consistently once the regular season arrives, but his development in practice is at least a good sign.
The Lions don’t seem to have the quality depth at cornerback to fill the void if Slay is unable to handle the job.
"He’s got all the things that you look for in terms of physical gifts," coach Jim Caldwell said. "I think he’s maturing. He understands the gravity of the situation. He’s got an opportunity to play and play a lot. He’s been getting a little bit better every day."
Slay, 23, owes much of his recent success to Mathis, 33, who is entering his 12th season in the NFL.
Mathis has been a true mentor for Slay.
"That’s my dude," Slay said. "Coming here was a blessing. He took me under his wing. He teaches me everything — being a man, playing ball. He’s a role model."
Mathis said: "I’m one of the guys that kind of stays even-keel. He sees that. He’s a young guy. His generation is a little more flamboyant than mine.
"He got a lot of flak for his performance last year and he’s looking to step up. He’s a guy with pride. He thinks he can win at anything.
"I’ve been telling him from day one, ‘You have all the tools, but without technique and fundamentals, you’re not going to last long in this league.’"
— The sports-talk radio war is on in Detroit. WXYT (97.1-FM), the team’s flagship station, won’t allow other stations to broadcast their shows from training camp. So WMGC (105.1-FM) set up shop off the grounds with a 50-foot-high scissor-lift overlooking the practice field.
— Running back Reggie Bush, on Caldwell: "Every time I leave one of his team meetings, I feel like I’ve gotten better as a person, not just as a player or athlete. I feel like I’ve learned principles I can apply to life, too. He puts up various quotes. He uses a lot of Bible quotes. It could be examples from books, movies. They’re all different things that, obviously, are directly related to football but also at the same time you can apply to your life."
— The Lions signed defensive end Kris Redding, an undrafted rookie from Wake Forest, and waived receiver Cody Wilson, who was hampered by a leg injury.
— Michael Williams, a seventh-round draft pick last year who is trying to make the transition from tight end to offensive tackle, missed Thursday’s practice with an undisclosed injury but isn’t expected to be out long, Caldwell said.