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Darius Slay gives opponents Mutombo wag in breakout year

ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Darius Slay's finger shakes tauntingly, moving from side to side. And the wag -- borrowed ever so respectfully from one of the masters of NBA shot-blocking, Dikembe Mutombo -- tells his opponents all they need to know.

"Just from the commercial," Slay said, dropping his voice. " 'No, no, no, not in my house.' "

Slay's "house" has been his side of the field this season, where the Detroit Lions' second-year cornerback from Mississippi State has emerged into a viable NFL corner after a rookie season where he was benched and struggled to pick up the nuance of the professional game. His outsized personality -- Slay has an opinion on almost everything -- wasn't really able to come out because he wasn't on the field as much.

He did, however, learn from those who understood the game. He leaned heavily on his player mentor of sorts, Rashean Mathis. He spent his second straight offseason working with Hall of Fame cornerback and safety Rod Woodson in California.

He returned to the Lions during offseason workouts convinced he would be a better player, something he saw when he matched up on Calvin Johnson in practice and sometimes held his own. Do that against Johnson and Slay had a shot against almost any other receiver he would face in the league.

So his confidence could return to his game. So could his new taunt, ripped from Mutombo because he respected the longtime NBA center's play and the commercials he did. He added it for the first time during the season opener this year.

"He's not afraid to take advice from other guys and guys who have been in the league," Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin said. "They give you pointers and tips and you have to take what's best for you and use it. Some guys don't like that, they just want to learn on their own.

"But I think he took all of that and he's worked really hard. This league, a lot of it is confidence and I think he got off to a great start this year, this season, and that has done nothing but help him."

The confidence is evident. One of his bigger lessons, despite the confidence, might have come in realizing he won't always be the best player on the field. Slay's speed and athleticism can lead him to success in the NFL, but if he wants to continue to improve he has to learn how to be better.

"He's grasping the game and he knows that athleticism is not everything," Mathis said. "It can be a tool that can help you excel when you understand a little more scheme. When you understand a little more concepts, that means that I'm not just going to be like, 'Whatever, I'm athletic enough to cover anybody.'

"He understands that there's a lot of great receivers in this league and his knowledge of that is where growth comes into play."

So does understanding how receivers might try to attack him or try to exploit any weaknesses they perceive he has. A season ago, taller, better, older receivers could exploit the rookie.

He's been aided, too, by a scheme that allows him to grow more confident every day and every game. It has allowed him to press receivers and to trust his own closing speed should he need it -- leading to 47 tackles, six pass breakups and his first interception.

"I knew I was capable of doing it," Slay said. "The only thing I did is just challenged them balls more in the air. Finding the ball, tracking the ball, making plays on the ball.

"Coming up making tackles and just fitting in with the defense."

And then sealing any play he makes with a simple shake of his finger.