His first season as linebacker for the Detroit Lions ended with an injury in week 16 of the regular season, but former Mira Costa football player Jahlani Tavai still considered it a success.
“I think me seeing things with a bigger picture, instead of me locked in on certain things,” said Tavai, who spoke about his gradual improvement as a rookie. “My biggest thing that I was struggling with in training camp was play action, because I was locked on o-linemen and I guess I got too attached to trying to come downhill.”
He defied doubters with his play on the field.
“As the weeks came over, these (veteran linebackers) helped me out," said Tavai.
The 2014 Costa grad said the veterans helped him see the bigger picture.
"OK, don’t just get locked on the center," Tavai recalled of the advice he received. "See what’s over here. See if there’s a tight end coming around. Seeing the bigger picture and having better vision.”
When Tavai was drafted in the second round by the Lions and 43rd overall, his relatively high selection was questioned by many in the local Detroit media.
He came from a Division 1 program at the University of Hawaii that was lacking players who produced in the NFL. It was a school in a different time zone so far away that most people did not have the knowledge of his college success. He also had his final season cut short due to injury.
“Every game is important (in the NFL),” Tavai said. “I have to put good film out there, regardless.”
But his general manager Bob Quinn, who drafted him, and the coaching staff led by head coach Matt Patricia defended him. In the preseason Tavai made gains on the field and those who questioned his ability began to back off slightly.
“Nobody’s job is ever secure," said Tavai. "I have to keep proving to the coaches and the other 10 guys on the field that I belong out there and I’m going to work my tail off to earn their trust every play.”
Tavai was used as linebacker early in the regular season due to injuries to other Lions linebackers. He took advantage of the situation and, in his first NFL game, recorded a quarterback sack on Heisman Trophy winner Kyler Murray of the Arizona Cardinals. Murray was the first pick in the NFL Draft and already a multi-millionaire.
In between Tavai continued to evolve with numerous starts and making big plays along the way.
“Hopefully during practices, I show that I can be responsible with that duty, and hopefully I’ve shown it," Tavai said. "It starts with our preparation.”
While the Lions have just three wins on the season and will be selecting high in the draft once again, it was a season where there were opportunities for the former Mustangs player. He will be one of those counted on to turn things around in 2020.
Tavai said he is ready to take on more responsibility and be a part of leading the defense.
“We’ve got to watch a lot of film on opponents and see what their adjustments are," Tavai said. "We’ve got to over-communicate and make sure that we’re alerting each other about what we see so it’ll help us in the long run.”
Tavai injured his shoulder in the first half in Denver in the next-to-last game of the season and will be rehabbing that in the offseason.
He finished the year with five starts, 58 tackles, two sacks, one interception and five tackles for loss.
According to the Detroit Lions website, Tavai is the only NFL rookie to have a stat line of at least 50 tackles, five tackles for loss, two sacks and one interception.
He is the first Detroit Lions rookie linebacker in team history to accomplish that.