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The Wright stuff
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If someone had told K.J. Wright when training camp began that he would be starting at middle linebacker in the Seahawks’ third preseason game, his initial reaction would have been to glance over each shoulder to figure out who they were talking to.
“I didn’t see this one coming,” Wright said. “But this is football, and sometimes things happen. When your name gets called, you’ve got to just step up and handle it.”
Don’t look now, but the rookie from Mississippi State will indeed start against the Broncos in Denver on Saturday night. The fourth-round draft choice is stepping in because David Hawthorne is out with a sore knee.
But that’s a story in itself, because Wright was drafted as an outside linebacker. He moved inside, as Hawthorne’s backup, after incumbent starter Lofa Tatupu was released on July 31.
And how did that happen? Coach Pete Carroll defers to Ken Norton Jr., because it was the team’s linebackers coach who saw something that made him think Wright had, well, the right stuff.
“Initially, in my conversations with him and with what he thinks he does best, I just felt it was worth a try,” Norton said, flipping through a list of Wright’s attributes that included the ability to run, hit and call the defense.
“He’s a guy that’s used to being productive and he wants to be in on every play.”
The Seahawks made a similar move last summer, when then-defensive line coach Dan Quinn suggested that Carroll give little-used defensive tackle Red Bryant a look at the five-technique end spot. That experiment blew up in the faces of opposing offenses until Bryant went down in Week 8 with a season-ending knee injury.
And so far, Wright is taking to his new position. He has worked with the No. 1 defense in practice all week and definitely looked the part – despite actually not looking the part, because he is 6 feet 4.
“It is an unusual Mike linebacker,” Carroll admitted. “You don’t see guys that big, but he’s done good things in coverage and I’m anxious to see if he can hold his own and make the hits and come through. I think he’s going to do just fine.”
Wright definitely did that while playing with the No. 2 defense in the first two preseason games. He had a team-high eight tackles in the opener against the Chargers in San Diego and added two more tackles and a QB hit in last week’s home opener against the Minnesota Vikings.
“He’s certainly grown into the position,” Norton said. “Understanding what the responsibilities are. Understanding the whole idea of being a middle ’backer. The whole role you have to play. He’s really understanding how to play at a high level on this level, and it’s really fun to watch.”
And Wright is doing all of this on the fly. No offseason minicamps and OTAs session to absorb all that goes into being in the middle because of the 136-day lockout. A condensed and rushed training camp, when there simply wasn’t time to slow down to let a rookie catch up.
Asked if Wright’s quick response to the position change has surprised him, Carroll offered, “It has surprised me that he’s such a bright kid and has been able to pick things up. He’s done very well. He understands stuff and he’s a natural football player, so he’s made things look like they’re coming easy to him.”
Things did come easy to Wright at Mississippi State, where started 22 games on the strongside and 13 on the weakside, but none in the middle. He finished his career with 259 tackles, nine sacks and 23½ tackles for losses.
But this is the NFL, and Wright is playing a new position.
“It’s different,” he said. “But this is the NFL, so we’ve got to be professionals. Whatever they throw at us, we’ve got to be able to handle it. Right now, they’re throwing stuff at me and I’ve just got to be able to grasp it and learn it and just go with it.”
Wright obviously sees things differently from the middle, because he is so tall. Hawthorne is 6-foot and Tatupu also was listed at 6-foot. So Wright stands out even when he’s just standing there.
“I can see over the linemen, I can see past the quarterback,” he said. “And I’ve got good long arms, so I can shed the linemen. So my physical tools help me out a lot.”
Saturday night won’t be easy, but Norton looks at it as “win-win situation” for Wright.
“He’s only going to learn, and you know that he cares a whole lot about his reputation, about his performance,” Norton said. “As a coach, that’s all you can ask for, a guy that really cares and is very coachable.”
That was apparent on the practice field on Thursday. After one play, Norton, a Pro Bowl linebacker during his career with the Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers, demonstrated for Wright the fine art of using proper technique and hand placement on a certain coverage. On the replay, Wright mimicked what Norton had just showed him – hand placement for hand placement, hip turn for hip turn, step for step.
“He’s the type of player that listens and then knows how to transfer it to the field very quickly,” Norton said when asked about that exchange. “When you think of all the great players, he has those intangibles.
“Now let’s just see if it shows up on game day.” Read