Allen Park — The pass didn’t come close to reaching its intended target, traveling only a short distance before a linebacker deflected it up into the air. From there, the altered trajectory carried the wayward throw directly into the waiting arms of Detroit Lions rookie cornerback Jamal Agnew.
And as he did so often in college, Agnew made the interception. Had it been a game and not a random June practice, he might have been able to convert the turnover into six points.
Regardless of the setting, generating turnovers is important. It’s been a point of emphasis for the Lions this offseason, and part of the reason Agnew was tabbed by the team in the fifth round of the draft. Still, the young corner sheepishly sounded as if he was being asked to take credit for someone else’s good play.
“I think that was all just being in the right place at the right time,” Agnew said. “The coaches always preach tipped balls always get caught. The linebacker did a great job breaking that up, and I capitalized on the tipped ball. It fell right into my arms”
That’s fair, but if there’s one thing that can be extrapolated from Agnew’s college resume, it’s that he’s never had problems making plays. He set the University of San Diego record for pass breakups before his senior year and tacked on another 11 for good measure last season, finishing with 48. He also chipped in 11 career interceptions for the Toros.
Those are the skills the Lions hope port to the professional level, and so far, the team has liked what they’ve seen from the 5-foot-10 speedster competing for playing time as a nickelback and return man.
“What we’ve seen, he’s coming along well,” coach Jim Caldwell said. “The same things you saw from him in college, his quickness, and not only that, he’s instinctive. He’s got hands.”
Agnew admits he didn’t get off to the best start his first month with the Lions, although that’s hardly unusual for any rookie, especially one making the jump from the Pioneer Football League. But it hasn’t been the speed or physicality that’s overwhelmed him. It’s the size of the playbook, where he’s just starting to find a comfort level
“I definitely feel like the speed of the game is not as much of a difference, but the overall complexity of defensive schemes, how offenses try to attack you and all that, you have take all that into your thought process,” Agnew said. “That just makes it a little bit harder on the field. Especially, as a rookie, it gets you thinking a little bit more. I feel like I’m starting to get out of that thinking mindset and I’m starting to go out on that field and play.”
It also didn’t help that he had to miss two early practices to finish up academic requirements, although he credited the coaching staff for keeping him in the loop.
“The coaches did a really good job,” Agnew said. “I communicated with the DB coach every day. He would tell me what we’re installing, what I should really look at with the tape. They also recorded the meetings for me, so it was like I was there. …It was like I didn’t even miss a beat.”
But what’s really helped Agnew get his bearings has been the support of the team’s veterans, particularly Quandre Diggs. It’s a unique dynamic because the two are essentially competing for the same job; Diggs the incumbent, Agnew a challenger.
“Even though you might be trying to steal their spot, per se, they’re always willing to help,” Agnew said. “They don’t care. It’s for the team. The ultimate goal is to win a championship. Your twos have to be ready, your threes have to be ready, even the fours sometimes.
“If I ever have any questions, I go straight to Quandre and he’s always quick to answer, never hesitates, which I love.”
Agnew has a long way to go before stealing that job. He’s currently working with the third-team defense, but if he shows in training camp and the preseason he’s able to be a difference-maker like he was in college, it will be tough for the Lions to keep him down the depth chart for long.