Following Derrick Coleman’s lead

Posted Sep 20, 2013

Derrick Coleman admits that while growing up, “I wanted to be a running back like Marshawn Lynch.” Now the tailback-turned-fullback is helping Lynch as his lead blocker for the Seahawks.

As a tailback at Troy High School in Fullerton, Calif., and then UCLA, Derrick Coleman had a plan that bordered on a vision and was rooted in a dream.

“Growing up I wanted to be a running back like Marshawn Lynch,” Coleman said with a smile while standing in a hallway outside the Seahawks’ locker room at Virginia Mason Athletic Center.

Instead, Coleman has become the work-in-progress lead blocker for the Seahawks’ Beast Mode tailback.

He’s still trying to figure out just how this has happened, as he transitions from being the ball carrier to blocking for the ball carrier. Has it sunk in yet, as Coleman prepares for his third game as a NFL fullback in Sunday’s matchup against the Carolina Panthers at CenturyLink Field?

“Not so much yet,” Coleman said. “But I’m just glad to still be playing football. That’s one thing I love to do. And whatever I can do to help the team, I’m doing it right now.

“But it hasn’t really sunk in so much yet. When it does, I’ll let you know.”  

That Coleman is not only doing it, but doing it for the Seahawks was the biggest surprise among the decisions that where made when the Seahawks trimmed their roster from 75 to 53 players on Aug. 31 because he was retained over incumbent Michael Robinson. Surprising, at least from the outside looking in.

It was Sherman Smith, the Seahawks’ original running back who now coaches the position, who was perhaps the first to see that Coleman has what it takes to develop into a good fullback in this league. And Smith made that startling assessment early in training camp. It is Smith who now says that one of the things Coleman has going for him is that he’s a better athlete than Robinson, who played in the Pro Bowl after the 2011 season.

“Derrick is doing great,” Smith said. “He started his second game as a fullback last week – as a fullback. He’s never played fullback before and he’s doing a really nice job. He’s going to be a very good player for us.

“Taking nothing away from Mike Rob, but Derrick’s a better athlete. That’s a plus. And Derrick has a lot of pluses going for him.”

There’s more to what Coleman is doing in his new role than just running through the line with Lynch behind him. As it turns out, blocking for the tailback involves a lot of things Coleman always did as the tailback – except that he doesn’t have the ball in his hands.

“Basically, I want to block almost like, ‘If I was the tailback where would I go?’ ” Coleman said. “When we run inside, I read the linemen. I have a specific guy (to block). But it’s also, ‘If the runner’s not going to go there, why would I go there?’ ”

Besides, things rarely – if ever – look the same once the ball is snapped as they did while studying video or the playbook.

“When we go out there, it’s all about adapting,” Coleman said. “You’ve got to adapt to certain things. We may think it’s going to one thing but it can come out completely different. The good thing about us is we just read it like a running back and we’ll be fine.”

And if anyone knows about adapting, it’s Coleman. He has been legally deaf since he was 3, so there’s been that lifelong adjustment. Now, there’s this whole fullback thing he’s dealing with.

Smith is there to help, and it helps that he has experience in adjusting to lead blockers. While leading the team in rushing from 1976-79 and again in 1982, Smith had five fullbacks – Don Testerman, David Sims, Dan Doornik, Jim Jodat and David Hughes.

“The running back has to understand what the fullback is trying to do,” Smith said. “And the fullback has to understand what the running back sees. It really helps when you have a fullback that played tailback, so he can understand as a runner, ‘I’ve got to make the decision easy for the running back. I can’t constrict the hole by blocking the guy inside out when I’m supposed to try to get the outside.’

“So it helps when the fullback understands the tailback, and the tailback understands what the fullback has to do.”

And that takes time. It’s like the rapport a quarterback develops with a receiver and the chemistry a guard and tackle cultivate as blockers.

Coleman got limited snaps in the season opener against the Panthers in Carolina, as Lynch carried 17 times for 43 yards and quarterback Russell Wilson had his first 300-yard passing performance in a regular season game by completing 25 of 33 passes. In Sunday night’s home opener against the San Francisco 49ers, Coleman’s snaps increased because Lynch got 28 carries – for 98 yards and two rushing touchdowns – while Wilson threw only 19 passes.

On Lynch’s 2-yard run for his second rushing TD and third in the game, Coleman led him through the line. On Lynch’s longest run, a 21-yarder in the first quarter that came from a one-back set, Coleman was leading the cheers along the sideline.

“In our system, it’s great that he has the athleticism of a tailback because what we ask him to do a lot of times is you have to read your way through to a guy,” Smith said. “It’s not just run a straight line and block a guy. That’s not what our guys do.”

Offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell also is pleased with Coleman’s development, and his growing rapport with Lynch.

“D.C. has done a really nice job,” Bevell said. “Those guys kind of have to be as one. I think Derrick has really taken hold of the position. It’s something that’s new to him. So every week, from preseason to the first game and the second game, you can see improvement.

“That’s only going to help Marshawn – learning him, how he’s setting up the blocks, how he needs to help Derrick. It’s really cool to watch them work together.”

The tailback who wanted to be like Lynch, and now is the fullback who is helping Lynch continue to be himself.