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Lions DT Levi Onwuzurike moving past injury, eager to join improving defense

Lions defensive tackle Levi Onwuzurike was all smiles on Sunday after participating in his first practice since his back surgery.

Detroit Lions Training Camp Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images

The first two years of Levi Onwuzurike’s NFL career haven’t been the best of starts. But despite all the hardships, the Detroit Lions’ third-year defensive tackle is ready to put the struggles—and more importantly, his back injury—behind him and get his football career back on track.

Sunday, coach Dan Campbell announced that to many’s surprise, Onwuzurike would not go on the team’s Physically Unable to Perform list, meaning he would immediately start practicing for the first time in a year. Though the Lions are easing him in with mostly individual drills at this point in the offseason, Onwuzurike couldn’t hold in his excitement walking off the field after his first practice on Sunday.

“Oh, I’m really excited, man,” Onwuzurike said. “You know I’m excited. You see the smile on my face.”

It’s been a long road for Onwuzurike to get to this moment. After missing most of his rookie training camp, the former second-round pick battled through a back injury his entire first season. When Year 2 came around, things got even worse. The back injury flared back up and surgery ended Onwuzurike’s second year before the season even started.

And while he’s back on the field practicing and feeling sturdy and strong, Onwuzurike admitted he’ll never fully be beyond the injury.

“I think you 100% have to manage it,” Onwuzurike said. “Any injury you get in football, you’re going to have to manage for the rest of your life, for the most part. But I think it will be at the point where I’m not thinking about it. As long as I do my preventative work, do some abs, I’ll be good.”

That preventative work includes getting to practice early to make sure he’s doing all the necessary stretches, predominantly focused on working his core. He’s more than willing to do all of that because the Lions’ defensive front is much different—and much improved—from when he was last playing two years ago.

“Our d-line, our linebackers, and our back end, we’re all vets now,” Onwuzurike said. “Everybody is looking good, everybody is looking smooth in practice. I think everybody is excited to see what we’re going to be this year.”

Onwuzurike still has a long way to prove he can be a part of this transformed defense. The Lions' defensive tackle room now includes two established starters in Alim McNeill and Isaiah Buggs, and the team added third-round pick Brodric Martin in April. But if Onwuzurike can realize just some of the potential that Lions general manager Brad Holmes saw when he nearly traded into the first round for him, he can change the narrative on his NFL career very quickly.

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