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Tongues wagging over Wagner
Everyone, it seems, is talking about Bobby Wagner.
After practice on Tuesday, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said the rookie middle linebacker from Utah State was “on track” to be the opening-day starter when the team kicks off the 2012 regular season on Sept. 9 against the Cardinals in Arizona.
“We went in with that hope,” Carroll said. “Now we see that’s it possible and we clearly are supporting the fact that might happen.”
Dave Wyman, who played linebacker for the Seahawks from 1987-92 and was the analyst for the radio broadcast of Saturday night’s preseason opener against the Tennessee Titans at CenturyLink Field, also likes what he saw from Wagner in his NFL debut.
“I’m always impressed when I see a rookie have poise and look like he’s in control. It’s almost like he was back in college,” Wyman said. “Bobby Wagner looked like he fit right in with that defense.”
And last week, Pro Bowl fullback Michael Robinson referred to Wagner as a “baby Patrick Willis” – a double-take of a comparison to the five-time Pro Bowl linebacker for the division rival San Francisco 49ers. And Robinson has license to crawl out on that limb, because he played for the 49ers – and with Willis – before signing with the Seahawks in 2010.
But one voice has yet to be heard – Wagner’s. What did the rookie think of his first foray into the world of professional football?
“I think I did particularly well as far as getting lined up and making the play call,” Wagner said Wednesday after practice. “But I’ve got a lot of room to improve. There’s still a lot of stuff I messed up.”
Fortunately for Wagner and the Seahawks, there’s time to improve on his already impressive game – starting with Saturday night’s preseason game against the Broncos in Denver. There also will be two more preseason games and another 11 practices for Wagner to continue his development before the opener in the desert.
But the fact that Wagner has played this well to this early point is a large step in the right direction to filling the only vacancy among the starters in a defense that ranked among the Top 10 in the league last season in average points and yards allowed.
When the club decided against re-signing middle linebacker and three-time leading tackler David Hawthorne when he became an unrestricted free agent, the plan was to sign a veteran in free agency (Barrett Ruud), draft a player (Wagner) and let them compete for the job. But with Ruud sidelined all spring while recovering from injuries that ended his season with the Titans last year, Wagner started looking like he could be the starter.
He brings speed, athleticism and aggressiveness to a unit that is built on those characteristics.
The more the coaches have seen of Wagner, the better they’ve like him. And the more Wagner sees, the better he’ll be able to play the pivotal position in the base defense – where he makes the calls in the huddle before the play, makes adjustments based on what he sees prior to the snap and then tries to take away the middle after the snap.
“The game was a little faster than I expected,” Wagner said. “But after the first couple snaps, I kind of calmed myself down and everything was moving normal speed. So I just had to pick up what the offense was trying to do.”
Wagner had a team-high four tackles in the first half, including stopping Chris Johnson for a 1-yard loss.
“It was fun,” Wagner said of containing Johnson, who gained 8 yards on five carries. “He’s a great back in this league. So getting an opportunity to try and tackle him is definitely going to improve your game.”
And at this stage of Wagner’s development, that’s Priority One: Improving each time he steps upon the field.
“Bobby aligned wrong a few times, he had a couple mistakes there,” Carroll said. “He will continue to grow as he just recognizes plays more quickly and gets more accustomed to the looks.”
As for Wagner’s future, we’ll defer to Robinson.
“He’s going to be another special player one day,” said Robinson, who makes his living by blocking middle linebackers. “I call him a ‘Baby Patrick Willis’ because I haven’t seen a linebacker move like that since Pat.”
That’s saying something. “Well, it’s true, and I’ve been against both of them,” Robinson said. “He’s fast. He’s explosive, and again, just the way he slips blocks. And it seems like he’s always going toward the ball.
“He’s still young, but he definitely has the ability.”
Yes, Wagner heard about Robinson’s comments. And yes, it made him smile. In fact, it still makes him smile.
“It’s a huge compliment,” he said. “He’s a great ’backer; one of the best in this league. So to get a compliment like that is great, but I understand I’m far from where he’s at.”
And the best way to close that gap? One step at a time.