Allen Park — When the Lions drafted linebacker Tahir Whitehead in the fifth round in 2012, he barely weighed 225 pounds. The last thing they envisioned was him playing middle linebacker.
But with starter Stephen Tulloch tending to a personal matter Wednesday, Whitehead played in the middle with the first team.
“I never played the Mike (middle) until last week, but playing it the last couple of weeks I’ve been able to get comfortable with it,” Whitehead said. “I see myself being able to do it if they needed me to.”
Whitehead, one of the team’s most productive special teams players last season, weighs closer to 240 now, which is still on the light side for a middle linebacker. Tulloch weighs 240, but he’s four inches shorter than Whitehead.
“You don’t want to be too heavy these days because you come across a lot of passing teams,” Whitehead said. “You’ve got to be able to move sideline to sideline. About 245 would be max. Most guys are in the high 230s.”
Make no mistake, Whitehead isn’t being groomed to replace Tulloch or anything like that. Spring drills are for experimentation, learning all positions and building depth. Except for Tulloch, DeAndre Levy and rookie Kyle Van Noy, new linebackers coach Bill Sheridan has been rotating everybody at all three positions.
“Early in OTAs I played some at the Sam position (strong side linebacker),” Whitehead said. “Just trying to get comfortable in all three so I will be able to be utilized wherever possible. When you know all three positions, it makes it easier for you to understand the defense and to know why you are doing certain things.”
Coach Jim Caldwell, though, has liked what he’s seen of Whitehead in the middle.
“He’s an explosive guy,” Caldwell said. “He’s got punch and can run. He can direct traffic in there. He’s got a real good feel for the game. He’s a good football player.
“You see his closing speed and the way he makes plays – Tully is bigger in terms of width and girth – but (Whitehead) can function in there.”
With starting left guard Rob Sims sitting out and center Dominic Raiola taking limited reps (no injury), the Lions are getting a long look at rookie Travis Swanson and second-year Rodney Austin at center and guard.
Austin played center with Swanson at guard with the first unit Tuesday. They switched spots Wednesday, still playing with the first unit. In all probability, they are competing to be the extra interior lineman on the 46-man roster.
“Swanson is good; he’s an intelligent guy and Rodney had a great offseason,” quarterback Matthew Stafford said. “He’s gotten a lot stronger and that’s scary to think because he was already a strong guy. He did a great job in the weight room, he was here every day.
“They are moving from guard to center, center to guard every day and it’s not an easy task. They are picking it up.”
Swanson, the team’s third-round pick, said he isn’t getting caught up in what group he plays with. He just wants to execute.
“I am very confident with how I can compete,” he said. “Obviously, I have a lot to learn and there is such a valuable person I have in Dom (Raiola) right there to just run things by and pick his brain. I know some guys would kill to be in the situation I am in right now. I am grateful.”
“It helps to have 51 in front to show them the ropes,” he said. “He’s a great leader in that room. If they can just take notes and do it like he’s done it for a long time, they’ll be pretty good.”
Tate remains out
Receiver Golden Tate continues to be a non-participant because of a shoulder injury.
“It’s feeling good,” he said. “I’m day-to-day. ... I’m trying to make sure I really take some mental reps.”
He said him sitting out was mostly precautionary and that if this was the regular season he would probably find a way to play.
Asked if he would be ready for training camp, he said, “One hundred percent. No doubts about it.”
Receiver TJ Jones and cornerback Chris Houston were not on the field Wednesday.
… Several others were on the field but not participating: receiver Kevin Ogletree, running backs Joique Bell and Mikel Leshoure and defensive end Ziggy Ansah.
… Caldwell confirmed what many have observed, running back Theo Riddick has had a strong mini-camp.
“He’s had a great spring,” Caldwell said. “Even in my preliminary evaluations, just watching him in special teams last year he jumps out at you. He’s eager, he’s hungry, he can run, he’s a very good route runner and he can catch the ball. He’s had a real fine spring. I hope he continues to develop and I think he will.”