ALLEN PARK, Mich. – Duke assistant coach John Latina looked at his offensive line and realized he would have a potential problem with Laken Tomlinson. Not a bad issue, per se. Tomlinson was better than anyone else Latina had on his line.
This meant tougher coaching and a different type of coaching when he started working with Tomlinson three years ago. It meant less on-field pressure – Tomlinson became a four-year starter – and more off-field conversations about how Tomlinson could go from being a good lineman to one of the nation’s best.
Latina focused on little things with Tomlinson, physical things he could tweak in the game of the future Detroit Lions first round pick.
“Things like finish the blocks,” Latina said. “It’s OK to drive a guy to the round. It’s OK to be physical in pass protection, to take a clean shot on a defender instead of a dirty shot. To be a physical player.
“That was going to come no matter what, once he gained more confidence and more experience.”
Tomlinson started to see growth in his first year with Latina – Tomlinson’s redshirt sophomore season. When he first worked with Tomlinson, he saw a powerful player who sometimes became “antsy” in pass protection and was sometimes overaggressive. But he had a player on the verge of becoming special.
“It happens in kids from high school to college, that was very natural,” Latina said. “Once we got him in tune to doing those things, you saw him gaining great confidence and playing really well in a really good conference.
“I think he’s so consistent. He’s really good but he’s so consistent and that’s because of his maturity and his attitude that he has both mentally and physically.”
The maturity showed in Tomlinson’s feedback. He consistently said he understood things – then performed it in practice and in games. So Latina took added something else during Tomlinson’s junior season.
He started to show him other interior linemen who were considered among the best in the country – including when the Blue Devils played Texas A&M in the 2013 Chick-fil-A Bowl and the Aggies had an offensive line with Jake Matthews, Cedric Ogbuehi and Jarvis Harrison. He also used as an example one of the better linemen in the ACC, then-Florida State center Bryan Stork.
While some of those players played tackle instead of on the interior, Latina’s job was to show Tomlinson he was one of the best guards in the country, if not the best one. Just an old coaching trick he was able to pull out.
“He saw how dominant he was, becoming as a complete player, and I think the feedback he gave to me between his junior and senior year, he always worked really hard,” Latina said. “I think everybody works hard, but he started working with a purpose and his purpose became to become the best in the country.”
In Tomlinson's senior year, he likely was. He didn’t allow a sack in a pro-style system. Latina couldn’t remember him allowing a pressure of quarterback Anthony Boone, either. Tomlinson said it was between the 2013 and 2014 seasons he really started to believe he could be an NFL player.
That was the confidence Latina had been harping about for two years.
“That’s what I wanted to do,” Tomlinson said. “And I did everything in my power to set myself up in a great position to be where I am today.”
The confidence, consistency and dedication showed during his senior season. His career arc led Latina to say he was the most complete offensive lineman he has ever coached. He compared him to his former Ole Miss offensive lineman, Chris Spencer, the No. 26 pick in the 2005 draft who has played 10 seasons in the NFL with Seattle, Chicago and Tennessee.
“Laken reminds me of him so much physically, emotionally and mentally,” Latina said. “I look at him to have a bright NFL career.”