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Disciplined Lions rookie Larry Warford already among NFL’s best linemen

By Larry Warford's senior season at Kentucky, everything was coming easy to him.

At practice, the right guard said he would "destroy everybody." In games, he "was winning all the time" in his personal matchups, even against the tough Southeastern Conference defensive tackles.

Then he landed with the Lions as a third-round pick, and in organized team activities and minicamp, NFL defensive tackles -- particularly Ndamukong Suh -- knocked him off his game.

"I was getting whooped, like bad," Warford said. "It shot my confidence a lot. It really shook me to the core and I lost a lot of my fundamentals because I was like, 'I don’t want to get beat no more.'

"It got to a point where I was depressed. I didn’t feel like I belonged for a while. I was like, 'Man, what am I even doing here?'"

Warford went to Arizona to train with LeCharles Bentley, a two-time Pro-Bowl interior lineman with whom he began working after his senior season. When he returned to Detroit for training camp, he won the starting right guard job over Dylan Gandy, Leroy Harris and Jake Scott, all veterans of at least six seasons.

Now, after overcoming the rookie wall he hit in June, Warford is one of the best guards in the NFL.

And even though they look nothing alike, Bentley said the 332-pound Warford is cut from the same cloth as Lions All-Pro receiver Calvin Johnson, both striving to be as successful off the field as on it while maintaining their humility.

"I'm a father of four boys," Bentley said, "and if my four boys grow up and become the type of person -- forget football -- just the type of person that Larry Warford is, I've hit a home run."

From Navy family

Warford's coaches, past and present, deserve a lot of credit for his success, but they point to his father.

Larry Warford Jr. was in the Navy for 20 years and retired as a Chief Petty Officer in 2008. He fought in the Gulf War and earned a medal after his ship, the USS Tripoli, hit an Iraqi mine.

"With him being in the Navy, he really prepared me for being in football as far as having a routine and being on a strict regimen and being places early," Warford III said. "I'm really strict with how I conduct myself in the business area."

Lions offensive line coach Jeremiah Washburn praised Warford's emotional toughness and said much of that comes from his father.

"You can tell when a guy's been raised right," Washburn said.

And Warford's father is often around for critical decisions.

After his senior season at Kentucky, he was looking for an agent, and Neil Schwartz was courting Bentley. Schwartz and Bentley met in Bentley’s college house -- and Warford's father was there, too, to do a little reconnaissance for his son.

"In terms of that guidance aspect, these were folks that got it," Bentley said.

'That guy can play'

Warford signed with Schwartz and started working with Bentley before the Senior Bowl in January, and one of Bentley's other protégés, Browns right guard Shawn Lauvao, noticed Warford's talent immediately.

"He looks at him and says, 'That guy can play,'" Bentley said.

That was before the draft and before Warford trimmed body fat, which has helped him move downfield as well as alleviate some back pain.

Some NFL teams were scared off after Warford ran the 40-yard dash in 5.58 seconds at the combine, but the Lions had inside information after coaching him -- and meeting his father -- at the Senior Bowl.

And because of his constant hustle, one of Warford's strengths is running across or down the field on outside runs and screens.

In the offseason, Suh said his punch, patience and footwork were all immediately evident.

"You could see talent within the guy, especially going against him," Suh said.

And people around the league have certainly taken notice of Warford's rookie campaign. "Monday Night Football" analyst Jon Gruden called him "an eye-opener."

He seized the starting job in training camp by simply playing better than his competition, Washburn said.

"It was not an easy decision, but I'm glad we made it," he said.

Big impact

Football means everything to Warford. If he isn’t home playing guitar, or representing the Lions at a charity event, Warford is probably at the Lions’ Allen Park facility.

Being drafted in the third round behind 10 offensive linemen doesn't motivate Warford. Playing on a football team does.

"I'm always going to fight for my family," he said. "I don’t want to let these guys down."

Lions center Dominic Raiola has had arguably the best season of his career, and left guard Rob Sims remains one of the most consistent linemen in the NFL. And in no way is Warford holding them back on the interior.

"I think the kid is just a natural," offensive coordinator Scott Linehan said. "I think if you played football 12 months out of the year you would get the same thing from Larry."

Through 13 games, the Lions are averaging nearly 12 more rushing yards per game than in 2012 and often favor the right side despite having started three different right tackles. Matthew Stafford has been sacked an NFL-low 15 times this season, and Warford hasn't been responsible for any of them, according to Pro Football Focus. The site rates him as the fourth-best guard, left or right, in the league.

Warford probably won't be the AP NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. A lineman has never won the award, and San Diego's Keenan Allen (931 receiving yards and seven touchdowns) and Green Bay's Eddie Lacy (1,028 rushing yards and eight touchdowns) are both deserving candidates.

But the Lions are certainly glad they have him.

"Looking back on it, there was an offensive lineman taken with the first pick (Central Michigan tackle Eric Fisher)," Bentley said. "Looking back on just pure performance at this time, it probably should've been Larry Warford."

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Neil S. Schwartz

Email: neilsschwartz@gmail.com

Jonathan Feinsod

Email: jonathan@sffootball.net

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