Detroit — When the Lions drafted Kyle Van Noy in the second round in May, it seemed obvious that he or Ashlee Palmer would start at strong-side linebacker in 2014.

But Tahir Whitehead showed Friday night that competition is a three-horse race.

Whitehead started the game in place of Palmer — and with Van Noy inactive (abdominal) — and had himself a night, finishing with 10 tackles and three sacks.

“He was really playing at a level of one of the top three linebackers, and so we put him in position to kind of see what we can do,” coach Jim Caldwell said of Whitehead. “And obviously he took advantage of it.”

A fifth-round pick in 2012, Whitehead has yet to play a regular season snap on defense for the Lions, though he’s been a key contributor on special teams the last two years. Whitehead’s start gave him a chance to run out of the tunnel and be introduced to the Ford Field crowd for the first time, reminding him of his college days at Temple.

“It felt amazing,” he said.

That feeling obviously boosted Whitehead’s energy as he notched the first two tackles of the game, but there was much more than excitement involved. Whitehead played strong-side linebacker in college and said the Lions’ new aggressive scheme is similar to what he did at Temple.

And even though Whitehead had the best performance he’s ever had in the NFL, he was extremely humble after the game. After a joke that he was the game’s most valuable player, he said, “No, Reggie Bush, man,” who had an 86-yard run.

Bush’s home run was the highlight for the offense, but Whitehead’s consistent playmaking was the memory from the defense. Up to 242 pounds, Whitehead looks the part of an outside linebacker and played like someone worthy of playing time.

“I just went out there and did my job, and whatever the result was, it was what it was,” he said. “I just was playing. I control my effort. No one else does. I just go hard every play as best I can.”

Palmer had three tackles and a sack, but it was Whitehead’s night from start to nearly finish as he played longer than anyone else on the first-team defense. Whitehead said he just did what the coaches told him to do and that the performance was humbling.

But as the regular season approaches, Whitehead has a legitimate claim to playing time on defense this year, whether he’s the starter or not.

“Just keeping my head down, preparing every day as best I can,” he said of how he’s improved since his rookie season. “Just being like a horse in a horse race; just keep blinders on, don’t get distracted by what’s to the left, what’s to the right. Just keeping my eye on the main goal and keep grinding.”