ALLEN PARK, Mich. – Kenny Golladay was an average-sized, late-developing football player while growing up on Chicago's South Side, where North Dakota coaches came and offered him a scholarship.
No one else wanted him.
Golladay, who was a 5-foot-11, 175-pound wide receiver back then, accepted his only option and shot up about 5 inches over two years in the northern Great Plains.
When North Dakota fired coach Chris Mussman in 2013, Golladay decided to leave, too. He transferred to Northern Illinois, where he redshirted one year and flourished the next two seasons, doing enough for the Detroit Lions to draft him in the third round this year. Lions general manager Bob Quinn has said the rookie may line up on the outside or inside, complementing veterans Golden Tate and Marvin Jones.
Golladay seems set up to be the team's No. 3 receiver, filling the role Anquan Boldin had last season. Boldin signed this week with the Buffalo Bills, sealing his fate as a former Lions receiver.
"Of course, that's the role I want," Golladay said. "But I'm just focused on coming out here and making at least one play to make myself stand out every practice."
So far, so good.
The 6-4, 213-pound Golladay has turned heads while becoming a go-to target for Detroit's quarterbacks, including Matthew Stafford, in training camp. His speed allows him to get separation from defensive backs and his size makes him a tough target to defend.
"I'm just throwing to the open guy," Stafford said when asked about throwing early and often to Golladay. "I got no qualms about throwing it to anybody. He's doing a good job of getting open. He's obviously a talented kid, a big physical guy who can run. He's still learning like all these rookies. It's an exciting time for him."
Unlike veterans, the rookie is fired up for the team's preseason opener Sunday afternoon in Indianapolis.
"There's going to be some butterflies," Golladay acknowledged. "This is a dream come true, and a lot of people don't get to experience anything like this. When you're a little kid, you always have that dream to be an NFL player. My senior year in high school, even though I had to go to North Dakota, I thought I could do it. After my junior year at Northern Illinois, I knew I would have a chance to be in the league."
Golladay put himself in a position to live his dream by catching 18 touchdown passes, spread out over 13 games, and running for three scores as a junior and senior. In college, he often could make plays by simply being a better athlete. Golladay has already learned he can't count on that advantage in the NFL.
"I'm trying to become an all-around receiver, who can block and run good routes with good technique," he said. "I can't just go out there and be faster and bigger than the guy across from me because everyone in this league is fast and big."
The mental part of the game can also be an adjustment for rookies in the league, but Tate said Golladay has passed all those tests.
"I've been impressed because he's learning the material and he's playing confidently, which is hard to do at this level so quick," Tate said. "He's very, very, very talented, and he's making plays all over the field. Preseason games will be good for him to get game-like reps, the speed of the game and get hit a few times."
Lions coach Jim Caldwell called Golladay a "dynamic player," who has some attributes that can't be coached such as speed, height and work ethic. Caldwell will, though, find out more about how Golladay stacks up with NFL players following joint practices and a game with the Colts.
"These next practices coming up in Indy and then also obviously the preseason game is going to tell us quite a bit about him," Caldwell said.
NOTES: The Lions signed WR Dez Stewart and CB Tramain Jacobs. They waived WR Ryan Spadola and CB Des Lawrence.