Allen Park — He can handle the speed of the game, so far. He can handle the physical play. He can handle the sizzling Matthew Stafford spiral.
Rookie Kenny Golladay has handled it all so well, so far, you legitimately wonder if he can handle the hype. Oh, because it’s coming. Not just from teammates wowed by his size-speed combination, and not just from coaches impressed by his work ethic.
It’s coming from Lions fans that have spent years inhaling the fumes of wasted hype, and from media who see a 6-foot-4 receiver making two acrobatic touchdown catches in his first preseason game, and they start making wild proclamations. But before anyone plans their Golladay party, know this: He’s not interested in pumping the hype machine.
After practice Thursday, he was still out there, running routes and catching passes from Stafford. When asked if he felt vindicated as an unheralded third-round pick from a small school, Golladay practically laughed.
“Absolutely not,” he said. “I’m just blocking all that out, to be honest. That was one game. We got three more preseason games left, and then a whole regular season. … I’m very confident in myself. But I didn’t feel like I’m the big man or anything like that.”
It’s easy for Golladay not to feel that way because he’s never felt that way, not as an undersized receiver out of Chicago who trekked off to North Dakota to begin his college career. When the coaching staff there was fired, Golladay, who grew four inches after high school, decided to transfer and put together his own highlight tape. He ended up at Northern Illinois, where he caught 160 passes and scored 18 touchdowns the past two seasons.
Humble beginnings are the seeds of perspective, as long as you don’t bury them. Watch Golladay work and listen to him talk, you detect more self-confidence than self-centeredness. He doesn’t seem to be the type consumed by acclaim, but it’s early.
The Lions have brought him along steadily and are just now starting to throw more at him, finally lining him up with the first team in practice the other day.
Tough to excel
There are historic realities, too — receivers generally don’t break out in their first seasons. There’s a reason Randy Moss’ rookie year in 1998 remained the standard (1,313 yards, 17 touchdowns) all the way until 2014, when Odell Beckham Jr. piled up 91 catches for 1,305 yards with the Giants. Then last season, Ohio State rookie Michael Thomas had 92 receptions with the Saints.
It takes time, and no one is suggesting Golladay is in that realm. Ironically, the rarest star was Anquan Boldin with the Cardinals in 2003, when he caught a rookie-record 101 passes for 1,377 yards. Boldin was the Lions’ red-zone threat last season and scored eight touchdowns, but they let him go. I’m guessing that was at least partly because general manager Bob Quinn liked what he had in Golladay.
That’s another reason for the premature Golladay holiday — he might be the latest sign Quinn truly knows what he’s doing. Golladay was considered too unrefined to go as high as the third round, according to most projections.
Almost immediately in training camp, he stood out. His height and gangly legs conjure images of Calvin Johnson, and it helps that Stafford has experience throwing to a guy like that. Golladay said his idol was Moss, and we can see where these crazy comparisons are going. Jim Caldwell can see it too, and while he’s not holding the rookie back, he’s not hoisting him up, either. Golladay has struggled with route-running at times and has dropped a few passes in practice.
“If we can keep him from reading the newspapers or listening to the radio, he’ll be all right,” Caldwell said. “He’s one of those guys that’s got the right kind of attitude. He works, he’s not affected by much, it appears. But he’s young. So we’ll see.”
It’ll be interesting to see if Golladay’s role expands in the preseason home opener against the Jets Saturday night. He has been a red-zone terror in practice, and his two touchdowns — 23 and 15 yards from Jake Rudock — against the Colts last Sunday required excellent hands and body control.
Teammates don’t mind raving because they know the impact a big receiver can have on this offense, alongside smaller Marvin Jones Jr. and Golden Tate. The raw physical tools are too imposing to ignore.
“He’s a freak,” Ameer Abdullah said. “He’s a tall guy, he can jump, he can run, he can do everything. He’s the modern-day, freak-of-nature athlete.”
That’s from inside the team, but the view is similar from the outside. When former receiver Chad Johnson showed up at a Lions practice recently, he left with high praise, delivered in a colorful Tweet: “I’m not a scout but I know my (blank). Golladay is gonna be special.”
Maybe he will be. But maybe it won’t come as quickly as it first appears. Calvin Johnson only caught 48 passes for 756 yards his rookie season. For a cautionary lesson, there’s the sad tale of Titus Young, a second-round pick who caught 48 passes for 607 yards as a Lions rookie in 2011, then battled mental-health and legal issues and was done.
Acclaim can be a flame, and that’s true in all sports. Eric Ebron is still waging the expectation battle as the No. 10 overall pick in 2014, although his numbers have steadily risen.
We are talking about a few practice highlights and one — ONE — preseason game for Golladay, so it seems silly to suggest he has to block out the attention.
It’s completely foreign to him because he’s never felt it.
“That’s just the type of person I am — I’m a guy that pretty much fell under the radar all my life,” Golladay said. “And then when a guy you haven’t heard of is making a few plays, of course you’re gonna create some buzz. But I’ve been doing it my whole life, so I know in my mindset that’s nothing.”
The Golladay Experience certainly isn’t nothing, but until the season actually begins, it’s not yet something. That said, by early appearances, it’s on its way