Amani Oruwariye entered Week 12 having only played seven NFL defensive snaps in his entire career. The rookie spent much of the early stages of the season as either a healthy scratch or special teams contributor—finally getting a chance to see the field late in a loss to the Dallas Cowboys.
Things changed for the rookie this week, though. Starting corner Rashaan Melvin was ruled out with a rib injury. Oruwariye was next in line to start, meaning the untested rookie was going to be thrown straight into the fire against Washington.
“I wasn’t nervous. It’s all about preparation,” the rookie said about being thrust into a larger role. “If you’re prepared, there is nothing to be worried about.”
While the NFL is a new challenge for Oruwariye, this specific situation is not. In both high school and college he initially got his chance to start because of an injury to a more experienced player ahead of him on the depth chart.
“I’ve had this happen before and I’m prepared. An opportunity comes, you just gotta make the most of it,” Oruwariye said. “This happened in high school, this happened in college. Just happy I could continue taking advantage of my opportunity.”
Taking advantage of his opportunity is exactly what he did. The rookie corner was all over the field, breaking up a few passes and even coming up to make a few plays in the run game. He nearly sealed the game for the Lions when he intercepted quarterback Dwayne Haskins late in the fourth quarter.
It would not be a stretch to say that Oruwariye was the Lions best player in the defensive backfield in Week 12. While the likes of Darius Slay and Will Harris struggled, he was a consistent presence on the back end for Detroit’s defense. NFL analytics company PFF agreed, grading Oruwariye as the Lions’ best defensive player in Week 12.
His performance was not enough to earn his team the win, though, which caused him to walk out of his stellar game with a sour taste.
“Getting an interception feels good, but I like to win,” he said. “Unfortunate we couldn’t get the win. We just gotta keep working to where we can make plays to keep it up.”
Losing is not something Oruwariye has had to deal with often in the past. At Penn State, losing three games in a season was considered a failure. It was rare for the corner to walk onto a football field and not be playing for the more talented team.
For some players, the early adjustment from a team that nearly wins every game to a team that loses often can be tough. Top overall pick in the 2019 draft Kyler Murray even recently mentioned his frustrations with losing for the first time in his life now that he is at the NFL level. For Oruwariye, the losses do not anger him, if anything he sees them as a chance to make his mark.
“I don’t see it as a bad thing at all, I see it as an opportunity,” Oruwariye said about playing for a losing team. “That’s why you play the game cause you wanna be able to affect the game and have a challenge. Be able to do more and be able to help the team.”
There are two huge factors that have helped Oruwariye over the past few months as he has built up to this moment. First, his big game experience. At Penn State he played on the biggest stages of all of American sports. Crowds of tens of thousands of people cheering during games where each moment could make or break a team’s season were common place for him.
While the NFL is a much tougher league to play in, the rookie has already played on bigger stages than the one he played on today.
“We played in big games at Penn State. It doesn’t really affect me when it’s fourth quarter tie game, stuff like that,” he said.
The second factor is the guy playing across from him. Slay is a former All-Pro corner who is widely regarded as one of the best in the league. He has a similar physical profile to the rookie, and Oruwariye has benefited greatly from learning under a player of that caliber.
“He’s definitely a great source in the DB room,” Oruwariye said. “Obviously his play on the field speaks for itself. I just try to take as much advice as I can from him and keep building on that.”
His mentor can already see progress in Oruwaryie’s game.
“All his hard work was paying off today so he went out there and played very well, just like I expected him to,” Slay said. “He went out there playing with a lot of confidence. He’s in good shape.
“He reminds me of myself as a young cat. Learning, he’s a good learner,” Slay added.
For Oruwariye, the learning has to be constant and continuous. Despite a great performance in his first substantial NFL action, he is still playing the position that is usually the hardest for a rookie to pick up in the pros.
A good start to a career can is no guarantee for a bright future. Mike Ford burst onto the scene with a few good games as a rookie UDFA in 2018, but his play quickly fell off and now he is on the fringes of the team’s roster. The ability to grow, learn and adjust is crucial going forward.
Oruwariye has been always been a player that has been able to learn, and do so fast, though. At every level, he has quickly found his footing and become one of the dominant players in his team’s defensive backfield. There’s no reason to believe things will be any different in the NFL.