Lions' Amani Oruwariye keeps family, Tampa close to his heart as ‘surreal’ matchup nears

By Matt Schoch
The Detroit News

Allen Park — Amani Oruwariye has represented the 813 throughout his football career.

On Sunday, he’ll play against it.

Most young NFL players throughout the league have that strange game — maybe as rookies, maybe a little later — when they go up against the team they’ve spent a lifetime supporting.

Lions cornerback Amani Oruwariye, right

That’ll be Oruwariye on Sunday against Tampa Bay, playing against the Buccaneers as the new chain around his neck features a plate with “813” adorned close to his heart, appropriately iced and shiny, befitting of an NFL player.

“It’s definitely something that I’ve thought about going into this week,” Oruwariye said. “It should be fun. It should be surreal.”

It’s been a month of firsts for Oruwariye, who is two starts and one interception deep into his rookie year with the Lions after being picked in the fifth round out of Penn State.

Some of his dozen or so family members coming up from Florida’s Gulf Coast on Sunday will be seeing him play as a pro for the first time. Also for the first time as a pro, he could be lined up opposite a close friend and college roommate in Tampa Bay's Chris Godwin.

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Godwin is a third-year wide receiver in the midst of a breakout season for quarterback Jameis Winston, catching 81 passes for 1,212 yards and nine touchdowns.

“He’s definitely one of those guys who is going to try to outwork you,” Oruwariye said. “He pays attention to the details. I knew that throughout Penn State, so I know he’s doing the same thing there.”

The little things and the work ethic are the same tenants Oruwariye and coaches talk about as keys to his own development and a strong finish to his rookie season.

The cornerback has averaged more than 50 snaps on defense over the last three games, filling in for an injured Rashaan Melvin, then supplanting him as the starter when the veteran recovered.

Lions cornerback Amani Oruwariye is enjoying a fine rookie season.

“Well, he’s getting better and better,” defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni said of Oruwariye. “He knows his areas that he’s got to go back out there and get better at. He’ll keep getting better and he’ll be a very, very good player as the years go by.”

Added head coach Matt Patricia: “He’s flashed some really good plays that we see that skill set that he has.”

The biggest play was his interception against Washington, where he wrestled the ball away from Kelvin Harmon along the sidelines.

“He’s obviously a very tall guy, he’s got excellent speed and he’s got a very, very good skill set,” Pasqualoni said.

Oruwariye grew up in Tampa and attended Gaither High School. Hillsborough County has produced a strong group of pros that includes wide receivers such as Marques Valdez-Scantling and Geronimo Allison of Green Bay, Nelson Agholor of Philadelphia and Diontae Johnson of Pittsburgh, among other players throughout the league with “813 Speed.”

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Oruwariye said just Thursday the defensive backs room was trash talking about which area has the best pros, with the rookie outnumbered by teammates Justin Coleman, Tracy Walker and Darius Slay — all from the same Georgia hometown of Brunswick.

At 6-foot-2 and 205 pounds, Oruwariye has the size and run-stopping potential that Patricia has prioritized throughout his defense.

Defensive backs coach Brian Stewart said the confidence and communication should continue to progress with more reps.

“You play faster,” he said. “You look at the first game, watch him versus now, you see him playing faster and moving faster on the field.”

Oruwariye will have his mother, Karen, in the Ford Field stands supporting him on Sunday. The 25-year Navy servicewoman has been to a handful of games to see her son.

Lions rookie Amani Oruwariye

The rookie’s father, Alfred, died in 2014 when Amani was a redshirt freshman at Penn State. Alfred’s son has a tattoo on his arm of his father entering the gates of heaven, and Amani checks on it every day.

Oruwariye is making his family and city proud. The 23-year-old should have the opportunity to show what he’s got the rest of the season starting Sunday against a Tampa Bay offense with prolific numbers in passing touchdowns and interceptions.

Winston has thrown the most interceptions in the league (23) by seven and is tied for second in touchdown passes (26) with Seattle’s Russell Wilson, trailing only Baltimore's Lamar Jackson (33).

“They’re a sneaky good team, so we have to prepare well for them," Oruwariye said. "We've got a good game plan for them, but I’ll be ready.

"Just getting those game reps, there’s nothing like it. I can settle down, play confident, just feed off these vets, just keep learning and keep playing.”

Matt Schoch is a freelance writer.