Like just about every player and coach who has spoken since Sunday, Detroit Lions defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn emphasized just how big of a loss it will be to no longer have Tracy Walker on defense after the safety suffered a torn Achilles against the Minnesota Vikings.
“Man, that’s a huge loss for us. It really is,” Glenn said Thursday. “Not just for the communication part, but that’s our captain.”
On Sunday, it was January’s waiver claim JuJu Hughes who stepped in for Walker. Hughes, who tallied eight tackles against the Vikings, earned praise from both coach Dan Campbell and Glenn after the game.
“I thought he was doing a really good job, so I think he was prepared,” Glenn said.
“JuJu was solid,” Campbell said. “He was solid, he can be better. But I thought for—man, not getting those reps and stepping in and doing some of the things he did it was—that was good.”
Despite a solid performance, Glenn revealed on Thursday that they will hold an open competition for that starting spot opposite DeShon Elliott. Hughes, rookie Kerby Joseph, and second-year Ifeatu Melifonwu will all be jockeying for the job this week.
“All three of those are going to get a chance,” Glenn said. “And I’ll be honest with you and tell you listen: we’re going to see who’s going to be the best one this week, and we’re going to put that guy into play.”
Joseph would be an intriguing option. A former receiver out of Illinois, Joseph is still relatively new to the position, playing it for just a single year as a starter in college. He looked somewhat raw in training camp and has only played on special teams thus far.
Melifonwu, who spent this offseason transitioning from cornerback to safety, missed most of training camp with a hamstring injury. That said, he’s been practicing for three weeks now, and was taken fully off the injury report last week.
“He’s about ready,” Campbell said Monday. “So he’ll be somebody that we consider this week as well.”
But here’s the stark reality of the situation. Neither of these three players has ever started an NFL game at the safety position. Hughes had only played 54 career defensive snaps before taking over for Walker last Sunday. Melifonwu played in seven games last year—including four starts—but all at the cornerback position. Joseph, as previously stated, has yet to log an NFL defensive snap.
And for a team that has been dealing with communication issues and has given up the most points in the NFL through three weeks, putting another inexperienced player out there could be a dangerous thing—not that Detroit has any choice. By design, they are a young, inexperienced defense, and Glenn has been the one tasked with getting them in line.
Glenn is hoping the competition will bring out the best in one of them.
“One of those guys has to step up.”