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When linebacker K.J. Wright, the Seahawks’ leading tackler, went out on the third play of last week’s game against the Minnesota Vikings with a concussion, it was “next man up."
And that man happened to be Mike Morgan, who played more against the Vikings than he had in his previous 13 games. Morgan will be the “next man up” again in Sunday’s game against the New York Jets at CenturyLink Field because Wright was ruled out on Friday.
“We’re not going to get K.J. back,” coach Pete Carroll said after practice. “It’s not about who’s stepping down, it’s who’s stepping up.”
That would be Morgan, again.
But who is this guy? Morgan signed with the Seahawks last July, after the 136-day lockout had ended and after he had not been selected in the April NFL Draft.
OK, that’s how he got here. But who is this guy?
No one knows Morgan as a football player better than linebackers coach Ken Norton, who recruited him to USC out of Skyline High School in Dallas and then coached him with the Trojans for three seasons before following Carroll to Seattle in 2010.
“I know Mike quite well,” Norton said. “He’s tall. He’s long. He’s really fast. And he knows the defense really well. He’s been playing it since he was 18, 19 years old. So he really understands the concepts and what we want out of the defense.
“So he’s a guy that is a solid backup for K.J. and also is guy that has really helped us a lot on special teams. He’s been a real asset to our team.”
Morgan practiced at strongside linebacker with the No. 1 defense all week, so he is better prepared for his first NFL start than he was when suddenly thrust into duty last week.
“There’s no question,” Carroll said. “Mike is a core special teams guys and he’s got a lot of special teams duties, so to have the chance to focus not just on that but playing down after down is really important. He had a very good week.
“He’ll be a good factor for us.”
The first factor that jumps out about Morgan is that speed Norton referred to. Morgan has run the 40-yard dash in 4.3 seconds – which is elite speed for anyone, but off-the-charts fast for a guy who weighs 226 pounds. But then he was a sprint in high school, when his best times were 10.6 seconds in the 100-meter dash and 21.5 in the 200.
“I wasn’t as big in high school, I was just one of the taller guys,” Morgan the NFL linebacker said of Morgan the high school sprinter.
Then there’s the size and length that Norton mentioned. Morgan is 6 feet 3, but plays even taller because of his long arms and legs.
There’s also the comfort-zone aspect that comes with joining an NFL team that has the same head coach and position coach that you had in college, and is playing basically the same defense.
“It only made sense,” Morgan said of signing with the Seahawks. “Especially with the lockout, and knowing I wasn’t going to have all the OTAs and minicamps and all that stuff. It’s just the best situation for me.
“But you know in this league that you should never get comfortable. There’s always somebody else trying to take your spot.”
Weakside linebacker Leroy Hill has been impressed with Morgan, and Hill has seen his share of young linebackers since coming to the Seahawks as third-round draft choice in 2005.
“Mike is legit,” Hill said. “He’s got skill. He’s got speed. He’s got all the tangibles. He just needs a little more refinement and experience. But he came in last week and did a pretty good job for us. That just shows the kind of depth we have on this team.”
With his 85 career starts, Hill has almost three times as many as the other five linebackers on the team combined – Wright (21), rookie middle linebacker Bobby Wagner (9), Morgan (0), second-year backup Malcolm Smith (0) and veteran special teams standout Heath Farwell (0).
Norton compares his young linebackers to teenagers – not just Morgan and Wright, but also Wagner and Smith.
“There’s going to be a learning curve, as far as experience,” he said. “They’re just like teenagers, sometimes they have to learn on their own and learn the hard way. They’ve learned, and at the same time they’re still learning. But they’ve really helped our team.”
Especially when one of them becomes the “next man up” two weeks in a row.