Killebrew needs big step to be Lions’ enforcer

Josh Katzenstein
The Detroit News
Miles Killebrew

At 6-foot-2 and 222 pounds, Lions rookie Miles Killebrew looks like an NFL strong safety.

When he confidently said last month that the NFL player he wants to pattern his game after was himself, coupled with his hard-hitting highlight tape, it was clear that Killebrew has the right mentality to be an enforcer on the back end.

The Lions will spend the summer looking for their new starting strong safety, and the fourth-round pick should be in the competition along with veterans Rafael Bush, Tavon Wilson and others. But, even though the rookie looks and acts the part, defensive coordinator Teryl Austin tempered public expectations for the 23-year-old from Southern Utah.

“I think he brings a nice, physical presence for us on defense,” Austin said of the player whose nickname is “Killa.” “Where he’s going to fit in, not quite sure at this point because he’s got probably a steeper learning curve than some of the others in terms of playing against a caliber of football player that he sees play-in and play-out here.”

Southern Utah is a Football Championship Series program, a step down from the Football Bowl Subdivision. Plenty of players have made the transition from the FCS, or even Division II, to the NFL, but it’s often a harder adjustment for non-FBS players.

The Arizona Cardinals are a team that has excelled at finding contributors beyond the FBS in recent years, and coach Bruce Arians said at the combine that the key is finding players who dominate if they’re in a lower level.

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Killebrew would seem to fit that description for the Lions. As a senior, Killebrew had 132 tackles and two blocked kicks, and as a junior, he had 101 tackles, four forced fumbles and three interceptions.

Playing in the Senior Bowl also gave Killebrew some idea of the level of competition he’d face, but obviously the NFL is another step up entirely.

Fortunately, the Lions think the rookie has the tools to adapt, even if it takes some time.

“I think he’s very smart, very conscientious,” Austin said. “He’s got the ability that we saw on tape, so now it just becomes a matter of how fast he can translate that to us.”