Saturday, August 5, 2006 - 12:00 AM
ROD MAR / THE SEATTLE TIMES
ROD MAR / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Tatupu lends steady hand
By Danny O'Neil
Seattle Times staff reporter
CHENEY — The change had become an annual event at Seahawks training camp, as predictable as the Eastern Washington heat and as routine as the start of two-a-day practices.
New season, new middle linebacker.
That's not the kind of turnover defenses try to create, but it had become a revolving-door reality. Seattle had a new starting middle linebacker in each of coach Mike Holmgren's first seven seasons with the team. Sometimes it was a younger player such as Anthony Simmons in 1999. Sometimes it was a veteran such as Levon Kirkland or Randall Godfrey. But every year, it was someone new.
Lofa Tatupu returns after a rookie season that ended with the Pro Bowl, and he comes back to a defense where the one of the biggest changes will be the fact that there was no change at his position.
"That's kind of your leader," defensive coordinator John Marshall said of middle linebacker. "And players rely on him to make the right front calls, getting people in the right spot and to say the right thing in certain situations."
A year ago, Tatupu was considered a reach as a second-round pick. Now, he's the man in the middle of a group of linebackers who have gone from being considered suspect to being called super in just 12 months.
Entering training camp last year, the position was a question mark. Simmons and Chad Brown had been waived in the offseason, Tatupu was considered small for a middle linebacker and no one knew much about Leroy Hill, a third-round pick from Clemson.
A year later, the position is one of the team's strengths. Tatupu became the second Seattle rookie ever to lead the team in tackles, Hill had 7.5 sacks despite starting only nine games and Julian Peterson was signed as a free agent in the offseason, giving Seattle a linebacker who has so many tools he could pass for a Swiss Army knife. Factor in D.D. Lewis, Kevin Bentley, Niko Koutouvides and Isaiah Kacyvenski, and the team has unprecedented depth at the position.
"Probably as good a group as I've ever had," Holmgren said.
The linebackers have been the bedrock of a defense otherwise riddled with absences through the first week of training camp. Defensive linemen Grant Wistrom, Rocky Bernard and Marcus Tubbs are recovering from surgery. So is strong safety Michael Boulware, and free safety Ken Hamlin is coming back from last year's season-ending head injuries.
As those players work their way toward the season, the linebackers have been a steadying presence for a defense in which the personnel has not changed nearly as much as the expectations for this season.
"We proved a lot last year, but not nearly enough," Tatupu said. "We still have to complement the offense the best we can. We're trying to be a defense to be reckoned with."
Tatupu was the first Seahawks rookie to lead the team in tackles since Terry Beason in 1977. He was also elected a captain for the playoffs and went to the Pro Bowl as an alternate, but perhaps the biggest indication of how strongly the Seahawks feel about Tatupu is that his coaches expect even more this year.
"He didn't have a great rookie year," Marshall said. "Very fortunate, the team played well. Did he have a good year? Yes, he did. A great year? No.
"He needs to have a great year this year."
That's a change. Usually Seattle spends the offseason looking for someone to fill the middle-linebacker spot instead of looking for improvement from the guy who's already there.
Danny O'Neil: 206-464-2364 or firstname.lastname@example.org
|The middle man|
|Seahawks middle linebackers over the years (ones with the most starts are listed), with games started and tackles:|
|Note: The Seahawks played a 3-4 defense from 1983 to 1989, and therefore didn't have a middle linebacker.|