'Hard Knocks' recap: Focus shifts off Lions coaches to players and family members

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News

The opening episode of this season's "Hard Knocks" focused on Lions coach Dan Campbell and his bevy of assistants with extensive NFL playing experience. In the second installment of the HBO documentary series that aired Tuesday night, the spotlight shifted to a small group of players, as well as a couple of their family members. 

It starts with Malcolm Rodriguez, the sixth-round draft pick out of Oklahoma State. There's been no question he's been a camp darling, but the NFL Films crew was able to provide additional insight into the rookie linebacker's rapid rise up the depth chart. 

Dubbed "Rodrigo" by defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn, Rodriguez has consistently impressed his coaches with his attention to detail and being sound with his assignments. 

Lions rookie linebacker Malcolm Rodriguez (44) was featured in the second episode of this season's "Hard Knocks."

In the meeting room, position coach Kelvin Sheppard uses Rodriguez's success to criticize the team's other linebackers. 

"I’m sick of (expletive) saying this about a rookie," Sheppard told his players. "What do you y’all want me to do? Put him out there (with the) first(-team defense)? Because that’s about to happen. This ain’t nothing against you Rodriguez. As a matter of fact, you’re (expletive) playing your ass off dude, but it’s a rookie. I’m doing everything I can to not put him out first. 

"If he’s the better guy, he’s the better guy. Ain’t nothing wrong with that. It’s the fact that he’s doing it right. Not only at a high level, but he’s doing what he’s coached to do."

Sheppard proceeded to relay the story of an unnamed coach who has been with the organization for five years — clearly offensive line coach Hank Fraley if you do the math — noting he hasn't seen any Lions linebacker make some of the plays Rodriguez has been making during this training camp. 

In a more private moment, Sheppard pulled Rodriguez aside to further praise the young player's potential. 

"There ain’t much you can’t do on the field," Sheppard said. "You got me? I’m telling you right now, this year can be whatever you want it to be. Everything is open for you right now. You just gotta go take it and do it.”

Beyond the players, "Hard Knocks" focused on a pair of familial relationships: Receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown with his father, former Mr. Universe, John Brown, and David Blough and his wife, Olympic hurdler Melissa Gonzalez. 

St. Brown, who set Detroit's rookie records for receptions and receiving yards last season, remains salty about falling to the fourth round of last year's draft. In one segment, he rapidly lists the 16 receivers selected before him, something he's previously noted he uses as motivation. 

St. Brown also explained again his routine of catching 202 balls off the JUGS machine after every practice. That started as a youth, when his father learned another local receiver was catching 200 and demanded his son do a little bit more. 

That led into a training montage, where Brown is shown leading an intense weight lifting routine for St. Brown and his two brothers. 

"My sons are pretty strong," Brown said. "Coaches always ask me, ‘How you do that?’ I’m like, ‘Dude, I’m tired of explaining this to you guys.’ You gotta train your whole body. Kevin Durant and these guys, messed his Achilles up. I have a question for guys like Kevin Durant: When’s the last time you did a calf raise?

"At home, I’m dad. But in here, I’m the trainer. So there’s no talking, no screwing around. Like if you notice, they haven’t said one word to each other. They never talk. No talking and just go."

The intensity of Brown was contrasted by the loving support between Blough and Gonzalez, two high-level athletes competing at the pinnacle of their professions. Early in the episode, Blough is shown coaching Gonzalez through a workout at a local track while making a memorable quip about his own lack of speed. 

"I just think all the time how much easier my job would be if I was really fast," Blough said. "If I was as fast as her, we'd have a lot of money."

Near the end of the episode, as the focus shifted to Detroit's preseason opener, Gonzalez teeters on an emotional edge as Blough first throws a touchdown before losing a fumble during a potentially game-sealing drive. The two embrace after the contest as he continues to beat himself up over the mistake.

Of course, Detroit's coaching staff is too interesting to not have a role on the show, including an inspirational speech to the team from Glenn attempting to inspire a change in the franchise's fortunes. 

"I said this last year and I'm going to say it again. I have the utmost respect for what you men do because I know it's not easy," Glenn said. "I know the grind. I know how it is to get on that grass. For two and a half hours you gotta fight. I know how it is. So men, I respect you.

"But men, it's time for a change. It's time for a change for you as players, for this organization, for us as coaches. Men, I'm trying to get something that's going to stir you up from the inside that's going to change exactly who you are as a player, who this organization is, so we can get ready to move forward on this journey."

Glenn highlighted two players who had team success in college — guard Jonah Jackson as a senior at Ohio State and defensive lineman Michael Brockers his final year at LSU. Glenn noted that before every game, they fully believed they would win. That's the attitude he hopes to instill in Detroit. 

"Time to get that feeling back," Glenn said. "You dig what I'm saying? Time to get that feeling back. At some point, men, we've gotta draw a line in the sand and say, 'Enough is enough.'"

Glenn's close friend and coaching rival Duce Staley also played an integral role in this week's episode. In the early moments, he rants about running back D'Andre Swift's potential and commits to the rest of the coaching staff and members of the team's front office he'll help the player reach it.

"I need Swift to believe he’s the best every time he steps on the (expletive) field," Staley said. "I need him to know when he’s one-on-one, no matter if he’s running a route or he has the ball in his hands, no one can guard him or tackle him. I want him to go to Dan (Campbell) at halftime and say, ‘I want the ball.’

"And he got it. It’s in there. The boy’s special. And every day we go out there between those lines, he gotta believe that. And I’m gonna try my hardest to get that (stuff) out of him — ain’t no try, I'm gonna (expletive) get it out of him cause he can be so special. I’ve been around some guys that have been in space — the special ones. He's got it."

From there, we move to the meeting room where Staley directly challenges the dual-threat weapon. 

"Man, listen, this is real: You can be the best in this league," Staley said to Swift. "You really can. But what you gotta do is this. You gotta have that dog mentality, you gotta bring that (stuff) out of you."

Later, Staley is mic'd up on the sideline and is captured riding Swift after every mistake as well as after successful moments during the first preseason game, going as far as to point out what the back could have done better after his 9-yard touchdown run.

Three episodes remain in this season of "Hard Knocks," which airs Tuesday at 10 p.m. on HBO and the network's streaming service HBO Max. 

jdrogers@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers