For the first time since he started playing football, Ryan Broyles had to wait his turn.
After being an All-Stater at Norman High School, a four-year starter at Oklahoma where he became the NCAA's all-time receptions leader, Broyles was drafted in the second round of the 2012 NFL Draft by the Detroit Lions.
Broyles, who suffered a torn ACL during his senior season at OU, was buried on the depth chart until a broken leg ended 31-year-old veteran Nate Burleson's season. Broyles was inserted in the starting lineup as the slot receiver.
Given an opportunity, Broyles has produced, hauling in 13 catches for 146 yards and two touchdowns in the Lions' past four games.
“They took their time bringing me up to speed with my leg and the playbook,” Broyles said in a telephone interview with The Oklahoman. “While my body was healing up, my mind was racing 100 miles per hour to get out there and do what I could to help the team. I had to wait a few weeks.”
In Detroit's first three games, Broyles played only 29 snaps. He didn't have a reception in Detroit's first six games. In a Week 7 loss to Chicago, the game in which Burleson was injured, Broyles recorded three catches.
“It felt good to get out there and build a little confidence,” Broyles said. “On the sidelines I was thinking, ‘One day, I'm going to get my shot and I'll need to make the most of it.' Catching balls, it felt like when I was back at OU. Hopefully my role and my game can develop and fit into this offense.”
Filling Burleson's role, Broyles complements star wideout Calvin Johnson and Titus Young, who is another talented, young receiver.
With Johnson facing constant double-team coverage, Broyles and running back Mikel Leshoure showed in a Nov. 4 win over Jacksonville that the Lions have other weapons. Broyles had six catches for 52 yards and Leshoure had three touchdowns in the game, which Detroit won 31-14.
“We've had to adjust,” Broyles said. “I feel we've done a good job of that. Whenever Calvin's number is called, he's going to be our main guy. He's the best receiver in the league. And he stretches a defense to help the guys underneath.”
Johnson advised Broyles during training camp to be ready. His advice: You never know when the grind of the 16-game NFL season will create opportunities.
Broyles' first opportunity is in the slot, a position that fits a 5-foot-10, 188-pound receiver — and the one that he starred in at Oklahoma.
“No matter where I line up or when my number is called, whether I'm facing a zone or man (coverage), I just compete as hard as I can,” Broyles said. “I see myself as a wide receiver not just a slot guy.”
One of Broyles' strengths is a knack for finding open spaces. When the torn ACL ended his senior season at OU, quarterback Landry Jones lost his security blanket. The offense slipped.
“Ryan really understands how to get open versus zone coverage,” Detroit offensive coordinator Scott Linehan told the Detroit Free Press. “And he's pretty sneaky against man coverage. Man's pretty easy as far as you're got a technique, now go win one-on-one. But zone is harder.”
After hs knee injury, Broyles rehabbed diligently before the April draft to prove that he was worthy of a high draft pick. He says the knee felt good throughout training camp.
Still, doctors told him it probably would take a calendar year to be close to 100 percent. He recently passed the Nov. 12 anniversary of that tearful day his knee gave out in a game against Texas A&M.
“I'm looking forward to what's to come,” Broyles said. “The past is behind me. I'm trying to be as hungry as I can and work as hard as I can to make more plays.”
The 24-year-old Broyles made a ton of plays at OU. He owns most of the school's receiving records. He established the NCAA mark for receptions (349). His 3,429 receiving yards are second-most in NCAA FBS history. Broyles also scored 35 touchdowns.
“He has great hands, is a great player and a great person,” said tight end Brandon Pettigrew, an OSU product and another one of the Lions' offensive weapons. “You can get him the ball quick. He's fast and can get downfield. He can pretty much do it all. His role will only increase every game. It's a comfort thing. When he gets really comfortable, there's no limit to what he can do.”
Broyles joined the Lions the year they were coming off a long-awaited playoff season. Detroit, though, faces a daunting challenge to return this season.
The Lions are 4-5 in the highly competitive NFC North, which features the Bears, Packers and resurgent Minnesota, a team led by former OU standout Adrian Peterson.
Detroit's schedule is daunting. The Lions host reigning league MVP Aaron Rodgers and the Packers on Sunday and play AFC leader Houston on Thanksgiving Day.
“We have three straight home games,” Broyles said. “We just have to start chipping away. Coming off a playoff season they don't expect anything less than that.”
Even if Detroit doesn't return to the playoffs, an offense led by quarterback Matthew Stafford and complemented by Johnson, Young, Pettigrew and Broyles should make the Lions a viable playoff contender in the foreseeable future.
“I think we're the best pass offense in the league or in the top five for sure,” Broyles said. “We have a lot of weapons. We have guys to fit every role. We definitely have some playmakers. At the end of the day we all want the ball to make a play. That will really help us moving forward.”