Larry Warford couldn’t help much of anything a month ago. If anything, the entire preseason felt like the same anticipation he had four years earlier.
Then a college freshman at Kentucky, he prepared to be a reserve guard for the Wildcats. Nerves raised then.
While Lions head coach Jim Schwartz won’t name his starters on the right side of the offensive line, it appears Warford could claim the spot at right guard. He would become one of three new full-time starters on the front and the youngest as well.
“Preseason I had really bad jitters and I’m like, ‘Oh man, this is crazy,’ “ Warford said. “I didn’t think I would be as nervous as I am right now.
“I’m always nervous for a game, no matter when it is. But I’m a little on edge right now. Just a little bit.”
The edge is understandable. Despite playing an ample number of snaps this preseason, the rookie has never faced a professional team with a game plan specifically designed for Detroit. He’ll also be facing a front led by defensive end Jared Allen, one of the NFL’s top pass-rushers. The unit tied for fifth in the NFL in sacks, with 44, and had three players in the top 30 in the league in the stat.
Warford balances the nerves by knowing he's playing next to experienced center Dominic Raiola and the other new starter on the right side, tackle Jason Fox. Fox is a fourth-year pro who replaced right tackle Gosder Cherilus. They have constantly answered questions for Warford, who learned quickly going against Ndamukong Suh, how much different the SEC was from the NFL.
“[Raiola’s] been here forever. If I have any questions or anything, I mean, even Rob [Sims] or Jason or Riley [Reiff], next to those guys I feel great,” Warford said. “They know everything.”
They also understand the difficulties of facing Allen and the Minnesota front. But they feel comfortable with what they have, even if the experience among the starters on the line beyond Sims and Raiola is limited at best.
“I don’t worry,” Raiola said. “Whoever we put out there, it’s kind of like business as usual. There’s no crush, no handicap put on it. Don’t have to baby anybody into those spots.
“They are ready to go. That right side is ready to go.”
The left side is where Reiff, making just his second start at the position, will face Allen, who has had double-digit sacks the past six seasons for Minnesota. The veteran, remembered his first few seasons and what going against Willie Roaf in practice and top tackles in games did for his stature and confidence. Have success against them and he would prove himself.
“Young guys are trying to make a name in this league, too,” Allen said. “How else do you make a name other than beating established players. I remember when I was young and got to go against Orlando Pace.
“I was licking my chops. I was young and I was excited. I expect him to come out full piss and vinegar and grit and ready to rock and roll.”
For Detroit, how Reiff and the rest of the young offensive line handles Minnesota will be critical for how the Lions’ backs and receivers are able to make plays.
Of those young guys, some have bided their time like Fox. Others, like Warford, have no idea what to expect. And then there’s Reiff, who has just enough experience to know what’s coming.
“That’s a very important matchup in this game,” Schwartz said. “Jared Allen is a guy who makes a bunch of sacks, turns the ball over a lot, could force you into holding penalties and stuff.
“Riley, or whoever is lined up against Jared Allen, is going to have to play their very best.”