By Ashley Dunkak
CBS DETROIT – A New Orleans native who played his college football in Manhattan, Kan., new Detroit Lions tackle Cornelius Lucas had no qualms about moving even farther away from home after getting an offer to join the Lions as an undrafted free agent.
“I just really wanted the opportunity,” Lucas said in a phone conversation Wednesday. “I didn’t care if I had to go to Alaska to play. I just wanted to play for the NFL.”
Standing 6 feet 9 inches tall and weighing 328 pounds, the 22-year-old rookie may have a decent chance at making an NFL roster based on his size alone. Riley Reiff started all 16 games for the Lions in 2013, so Reiff is all but entrenched as the starter at left tackle, the position Lucas played at Kansas State. The backup left tackle spot, however, looks relatively ripe for the taking.
For that position, Lucas will compete with J.B. Shugarts, an undrafted free agent in 2012 whom the Lions signed in April. He signed with the Cleveland Browns originally, briefly played on their practice squad and then spent time with the Dallas Cowboys and New York Jets.
Lucas told the Wichita Eagle he would be willing to transition to right tackle, but Corey Hilliard and LaAdrian Waddle held down that role well in 2013, so barring injuries the best opportunity for Lucas should be that backup left tackle spot.
Waddle, who like Lucas joined the Lions as an undrafted free agent, came up big for the Lions in 2013, filling the starting role well after Hilliard went down with an injury. According to the team website, Lions general manager Martin Mayhew said in a recent interview that he believes Lucas has the same kind of potential Waddle did.
Though Lucas missed the NFL combine because of a foot injury, Mayhew said the Lions targeted Lucas early.
“He has 26 straight starts at Kansas State,” Mayhew said. “We think he has a chance to be like a Waddle sort of guy. We’re going to try him at left and right tackle. The guy was productive (at Kansas State).
“He might be a guy, like Waddle, who not a lot of people were really on, but we’re excited about this kid,” Mayhew continued. “He’s not doing much right now. He’s waiting on his foot to get healthy, but he’s definitely got a chance to make our team.”
As is the case for most NFL hopefuls, going undrafted is a bit of a sore spot for Lucas. He watched the draft unfold last weekend, anxious the entire time, in contact with the Lions for much of it. His goal had been to get drafted as high as possible.
“I watched every single moment of it – very stressful,” Lucas said. “Didn’t really turn out the way I wanted it to, but God does mysterious things, and it works out how it’s supposed to work out, so me being here was part of my destiny.”
Lucas had talked with the Lions before the draft, speaking with assistant offensive line coach Bobby Johnson and assistant special teams coach Devin Fitzsimmons. The pre-draft conversations went well, particularly those with Johnson.
“He showed a lot of interest in me, and I had a good vibe from him, but I didn’t really think too much of it because that’s usually what happens – everyone’s interested in you until draft day,” Lucas said with a laugh.
In addition to having spoken with Johnson and Fitzsimmons, Lucas already knew another Lions coach from years earlier. New assistant head coach Ron Prince, who will also work with tight ends, had recruited Lucas to Kansas State when Prince was head coach there. As it turned out, the school fired Prince, and Lucas still became a Wildcat, playing five years (he redshirted as a freshman) under legendary college football coach Bill Snyder.
That Lucas is crossing paths with Prince again speaks to the “small world” nature of the business, and it gives Lucas a certain comfort level in Detroit.
“It’s very crazy, and that’s probably one of the reasons why I made a decision to come here instead of go anywhere else,” Lucas said. “I just felt like I had family here already, people that knew me.”
Lucas has been in town since Sunday. Already, he has a solid feel for how drastically different NFL football is from college football. The 10-to-12-hour days of position meetings and playbook study and walk-throughs at the team headquarters at Allen Park are only part of the equation.
“It’s just a business, and there are guys that are here that are here to support their families, so it’s not just like you’re into a college environment where they want you to come play here and it’s basically after you sign the contract there’s nothing that they can do to get you out of there,” Lucas said. “The pros, if you have a bad practice, you’re not going to survive. You can be cut the next day. It’s a lot more serious.”
Nevertheless, Lucas is excited for the opportunity and about what the Lions have a chance to accomplish in 2014.
“This is definitely a great program because they have a lot of talent here,” Lucas said. “We’re definitely in the right direction moving forward to move a lot of games next season and hopefully get a Super Bowl.”