Lions rookie linebacker Malcolm Rodriguez eyeing starting spot

Detroit Lions linebacker Malcolm Rodriguez (44) warms up before an NFL preseason football game against the Indianapolis Colts in Indianapolis, Saturday, Aug. 20, 2022. (AP Photo/Doug McSchooler) (Doug McSchooler, Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

ALLEN PARK, Mich. – Detroit Lions rookie linebacker Malcolm Rodriguez has become a surprising star on HBO’s “Hard Knocks” — and the sixth-round selection from Oklahoma State has a shot to start in Week 1.

Rodriguez made an immediate impression on the coaching staff back in May. Linebackers coach Kelvin Sheppard called Rodriguez one of the smartest young players he’s ever been around.

“There’s things I can do with Malcolm that you might have to scale back on a third-year player, to be honest,” Sheppard said. “I saw this immediately at rookie training camp, being able to take command of the huddle.”

Rodriguez’s star has only risen since. Though he started training camp with the second and third-team defenses, by last week’s joint practices with the Indianapolis Colts, the majority of his reps were coming with the starters.

“I just came in here and worked like I’ve always done since college,” Rodriguez said. “It’s just one of those things where I kinda bought into the system and just worked, coming each day into work.”

Rodriguez’s biggest hurdle thus far has been his size. Listed at 5-foot-11 and 230 pounds, the rookie linebacker is considered small for the position. At Oklahoma State, he also played more of the nickel position rather than a true off-ball linebacker that requires more size and strength. For those reasons, the Lions weren’t completely sure about him as a prospect at the next level. But since landing in Detroit, Rodriguez has met all challenges.

“He’s knocked down every question I’ve ever had about him,” Sheppard said.

The Lions are not ready to crown Rodriguez yet. For as impressive as he’s been in camp and the preseason, the reality is that he’s still a 23-yard-old linebacker who has yet to play a regular season snap in his career.

“Don’t put him in the Hall of Fame just yet,” defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn said. “But I’ll tell you what, he’s a really humble kid. If the starting job is his, it’s his. If it’s not, it’s not, and he’ll play special teams. He has to earn his keep, and he knows that. And I think he’s doing a really good job with that because he’s a focused individual.”

For some, it may have been tough to focus with “Hard Knocks” in town. Rodriguez has become a star on the show for his salsa dancing during rookie initiation and the clips of the coaching staff fawning over him during team meetings. However, he has stayed focused by keeping loved ones close and blocking everything else out.

“I just kind of listen to the family, go about my way and stay off the social media,” Rodriguez said. “I just kind of stay to myself and have a small circle right around me.”

Rodriguez’s biggest challenge for a starting job is second-year linebacker Derrick Barnes, who has been sharing first-team reps with Rodriguez. After a tough rookie season, Barnes is making a strong impression.

“Derrick Barnes is coming, and that’s a real thing,” Sheppard said. “That player is a very explosive, very violent, very strong linebacker.”

But even Barnes credits Rodriguez for making him, and the entire linebacker room, more competitive this summer.

“(He) is really advanced for our younger years,” Barnes said. “We learn from each other, he’s a good player, and pushing me to be better. That goes around for the whole room”

NOTES: Lions coach Dan Campbell said 2021 second-round pick Levi Onwuzuriuke is in danger of missing the team’s regular season opener against the Philadelphia Eagles due to a back injury. “If you’re asking me right now, you’re twisting my arm, I’m saying he’s not available for Philly, that’s me, but we’ll see.” … The Lions plan to rest starting QB Jared Goff for the preseason finale against the Pittsburgh Steelers, opening up an opportunity for QBs Tim Boyle and David Blough to make their case for the backup job. “Somebody needs to step up and run this offense,” Campbell said. “Play efficient, play smart, take care of the football, get us the first downs, and when we get down to the red zone score touchdowns for us.”