ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- It starts in his eyes -- and really, what’s behind them.
To understand what first-round pick Laken Tomlinson has learned during his rookie season with the Detroit Lions, everything begins there. He’s an offensive lineman -- one thrust into the lineup faster than head coach Jim Caldwell expected -- so everything was happening pretty fast.
He’s a smart kid -- he's planning to be a surgeon after he’s done with football -- so he knew there would be a massive learning process out of Duke. And he figured he could pick it up. But still, there was the actual having to understand everything and he’s been able to do that with his eyes.
“I’ve trained my eyes to pick up on things a lot easier,” Tomlinson said. “Just quicker, processing things a lot faster and having the game slow down for me a little bit. I’m not quite there yet, but I feel like I’m getting there.”
He’s worked with his eyes and his brain to try to recognize more of what might be coming pre-play and then in the split seconds after the ball is snapped and he has to block whichever interior rusher is trying to push past him to get to quarterback Matthew Stafford or any of the Lions’ running backs.
He had some good moments this season doing that and some rough ones. Yet as the season progressed, Tomlinson felt he had become more efficient and consistent with his play. As he saw more varied opponents, he was able to add more to his mental library and that helped with the consistency as well.
“Every game there’s just some things that opens my eyes and from that game on, I’m just seeing more things,” Tomlinson said. “Different techniques against defensive linemen, reading defenses, picking up on tendencies ... that comes with the experience I feel like I’ve been getting a lot of experience this year and I can gain some more.”
Tomlinson has played more than almost any other rookie offensive lineman this season. He’s started 13 of 15 games -- only five rookie linemen have started more -- and his 826 offensive snaps are the fifth-most among rookie linemen.
So the experience has helped, even if it has sometimes been rough. Tomlinson didn’t want to specify when he felt he played well and when he didn’t and neither did his coaches.
All involved, though, believe the progress is coming.
“He’s improved in everything,” Caldwell said. “With younger players, they get a chance to see a lot of different styles for however many weeks they get an opportunity to play. And they have to measure up to those. Some he fared well, some he didn’t fare so well.
“I think those are lessons that you learn along the way. He’s got the physical characteristics needed. He’s smart. He’s tough mentally and he’s got a ways to go, but he’s the right kind of guy.”
There is potentially another lesson learned in Chicago -- he’s expected to once again start at left guard as he has the majority of the season -- and it’ll also be a game that brings something different for him.
For the first time as a NFL player, he’ll be playing in his hometown.
A Jamaican immigrant, Tomlinson grew up in Chicago and this will be his first time playing as a pro in Soldier Field. He said he thinks it’ll be cool and that his uncle and other family members will be in attendance.
The one person he isn’t sure about is his mother, Audrey Wilson. There’s a reason for that, though.
“She has to work,” Tomlinson said. “So she doesn’t know yet if she’s going to get off.”
If she does, she’ll be going to Soldier Field to see her son work for the last time in his rookie season. After that is when the progress for next season begins.