July 27, 2013 at 1:00 am

John Niyo

Is Riley Reiff ready to take over as sentry to Matthew Stafford?

Allen Park Dominic Raiola was just getting used to the idea of life without Jeff Backus around the Lions practice facility.

After a dozen years together as fixtures on the offensive line, the veteran left tackle finally retired this spring, leaving Raiola without his grumpy-go-lucky sidekick in the locker room, in the meeting room, on the practice field.

Friday morning, though, he had to do a little double-take when he arrived at the practice facility for the first day of training camp. Riley Reiff, last years first-round pick and the heir apparent at left tackle, already is doing a pretty good Backus impersonation, it seems.

You look over, hes got a USA Today in his hand, hes got a dip in his mouth, Raiola said, laughing. I thought it was Jeff over there.

Reiff, who enjoys talking to the media about as much as Backus did, couldnt help but laugh when Raiolas comment was relayed to him after practice.

Dom said that? Reiff asked. Is that a reliable source? Come on.

But even his position coach chimed in later, noting a few other off-field similarities between Backus and his presumptive replacement, including Reiffs habit of wearing stinky armbands.

Still, Jeremiah Washburn, promoted to offensive line coach this offseason after four years as an assistant to George Yarno, wants everyone to realize all joking aside that the comparisons, while inevitable, arent fair. And first and foremost, he wants Reiff to realize it.

Weve got to remind him that hes his own player, said Washburn, joined by his father, Jim, a veteran defensive line coach, on the coaching staff this season. He cant try to be Jeff Backus. Hes gonna be compared to Jeff, right or wrong. But Rileys got to make his own mark. I think he knows that, and hes done a great job with that so far.

Admires Backus work ethic

The job gets considerably tougher from here, obviously, as Reiff steps into an essential role in the Lions offense as Matthew Staffords blind-side bodyguard, among other things.

But if theres one thing Reiff learned from watching Backus last season, day after day, dip after dip, its that the job requires one thing above all else.

I mean, you can ask anybody around here: Jeff came to work every day, said Reiff, whose hometown of Parkston, S.D., isnt much more populated than a public training camp practice in Allen Park. Hes a professional. Thats all I can say about that. But thats not a line, though. Thats the truth. Hes the hardest-working guy I know.

Indeed, for all the criticism he endured during his career, Backus was an old-school mainstay for the Lions, starting 192 of 193 games after being drafted in 2001, including an ironman streak of 187 consecutive starts that ended last Thanksgiving.

Born that way

That game against Houston marked Reiffs first and only start at left tackle to date. But while he still has to answer questions about his pass protection at the NFL level the short arms, the kick step, hes heard it all Reiff did show plenty of promise in a hybrid role. He was an effective run blocker Pro Football Focus graded him as the best on the roster despite playing 15-20 snaps as an extra tackle most games.

And I think his role last year really got him to where hes at now, Raiola said. Rileys a starter. Thats the way I look at him.

He looks a bit different now, actually. Reiff says hes gotten stronger this offseason, adding 12-15 pounds hes listed at 313 now to his 6-foot-6 frame without sacrificing any athleticism. Jared Allen and Julius Peppers and the rest will be the judge of that.

But Reiffs mental strength will be tested, too. And thats one area the Lions coaches insist they have no worries.

Youre born with a left-tackle mentality, Washburn said. He was born that way, he was raised that way his parents raised him to be a strong, emotionally-tough kid, and thats what he is.

Hes never too high, hes never too low. And thats the mentality that you want from a left tackle. Thats the same thing Jeff had, and thats what we see in Riley.

And what they see in him, well, they certainly hope thats what they get.


Riley Reiff, left, works opposite Austin Holtz in his effort to replace the greatly respected Jeff Backus at left offensive tackle. / Daniel Mears/Detroit News