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Pro Bowl journey for Russell Okung and Earl Thomas began in March of 2010
HONOLULU – Just as Victor Cruz was catching a short pass, Earl Thomas reached around him to slap the ball from the grasp of the Giants’ wide receiver and the rest of the players in the NFC secondary pointed in unison to the Seahawks’ free safety.
On another snap, Russell Okung’s first step was to his right. But in half-a-blink he bounced back to his left to block Vikings defensive end Jared Allen, who had looped to the outside, giving Saints quarterback Drew Brees the extra split second he needed to complete the pass. Okung’s heads-up play was greeted by fist-bumps all around.
These two plays from this week’s NFC practices for Sunday’s Pro Bowl game were what Pete Carroll and John Schneider envisioned when the Seahawks’ coach and general manager made a three-day trip to Oklahoma and Texas prior to their first NFL draft with the team. They came away with a two-fer of first-round draft choices that have become pillars of the team’s solid foundation.
With the sixth pick in the 2010 draft, they selected Okung, who this season has blossomed into the left tackle the team has been seeking since future Hall of Famer Walter Jones was forced to the sideline for good with four games remaining in the 2008 season. With the 14th pick in the first round of that same draft, they grabbed Thomas, a blur-fast centerfielder of a free safety who is about to play in his second consecutive Pro Bowl and has not missed a start in three seasons.
“This is a big day for the organization,” Carroll said that April evening in 2010. “I’m so proud of the job John and his guys did. They just did a magnificent job of getting us to this point and positioning us as we come out of the first day with two great picks – two guys that we know are going to impact the future of this club.”
But Okung and Thomas starting together in Sunday’s Pro Bowl game at Aloha Stadium might have come even more quickly than Carroll and Schneider could have envisioned as they were making their swing through Stillwater, where they decided Oklahoma State’s Okung was the left tackle they needed; and Austin, where they knew the University of Texas’ Thomas was the free safety they wanted to allow Carroll to play his style of defense.
“As it has turned out, it was a blessing,” Okung said. “Earl, man, he’s a phenomenal player. I just hope the two of us are here for years to come.”
The odds are in their favor, because the better they get the better the team will become. And with team success come individual accolades. Okung is only 25 and just had his first 16-start season. Thomas is even younger – he turns 24 in May – and his instincts and swagger have started to catch up with his speed and athletic ability.
“Russell and I have had a lot of talks about how we want this team to be and what kind of leaders we want to be, and I think we’re doing a great job of just being pros,” Thomas said. “We’re very young, but at the same time we’re very mature. We know what’s at stake.
“We also know in this league, your time here is very limited. In my mind and his mind, we want to be the best.”
Did we mention Thomas’ swagger? It’s needed to play at a Pro Bowl level in this league, especially when you play a position as vital as the one Thomas fills.
“A lot of guys talk about Ed and Troy,” Thomas said, referring to the players who are considered the best safeties of their generation – Ed Reed of the Super Bowl-bound Baltimore Ravens and Troy Polamalu, who already has won two Super Bowls with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
“But definitely they’re starting to notice 2-9 here in Seattle (Thomas’ uniform number). Like I told Ed, I respect him and I think he’s probably one of the best safeties I’ve ever seen. But his time is up.”
Thomas laughed after he said that. But becoming the best safety in the league is no joke to him. It even carries over to his preparation for Sunday’s game.
“I’m glad I got a chance to come back, just so I can have a better feel,” he said. “Last year, I really didn’t know what to expect. In practice, I was out of my character. But this year, I think this game will start my season off just how I want it to be next year.
“I had a couple picks in practice off Drew Brees, and he’s a great quarterback. This is a big stage, so it’s no time to get tight right now. I’m just trying to compete, like coach Carroll says back home, and I think that will take me a long way.”
Another snapshot from practice this week that goes a long way to illustrating Okung’s continuing development involved him standing among a group of Pro Bowl linemen that included center and teammate Max Unger, the Saints’ duo of guard Jahri Evans and tackle Jerome Bushrod and Redskins tackle Trent Williams.
The quiet kid from Oklahoma State and Houston found himself among the crème de la crème of blockers in the NFC. But Okung was smiling and laughing, an indication that he does belong here – and knows it.
“These guys are the best of the best,” Okung said. “So to be considered among them, it’s a huge honor.”
Even more satisfying for Okung is the fact that he is one of six Seahawks who will play in Sunday’s game – which ties for the second-largest Pro Bowl contingent in franchise history.
“That’s even better,” Okung said. “That just shows you what we’re doing as a team and what we’re trying to get.”
In large part because of the double-get Carroll and Schneider came up with on that trip through Oklahoma and Texas back in 2010.