He'll always be 'Heater'

Posted Nov 27, 2011

A lot has changed about David Hawthorne's game since he was the Seahawks' middle linebacker the first time in 2009. But the special element that earned him his nickname remains the same.

Same player. Same number. Same position. Seemingly the same results.

But the David Hawthorne who is playing middle linebacker for the Seahawks this season is nothing like the David Hawthorne who did it in 2009.

Sure, he’s still wearing No. 57 and remains on pace to lead the team in tackles for the third consecutive season. It’s just that Hawthorne is going about it differently.

“I’m definitely wiser,” Hawthorne said with a smile. “And I’m comfortable. I feel the guys trust me and believe in me a lot, and they look forward to me being their leader out there. They know I’m going to be prepared in every aspect of the game and they can count on me.

“That’s the biggest difference between now and then.”

To understand the now when it comes to Hawthorne’s play it helps to revisit the then.

After making the team as rookie free agent in 2008, Hawthorne was thrust into the starting lineup the following season when Lofa Tatupu went down first with a hamstring issue and then for the season with a pectoral injury. So the neophyte from TCU stepped in for the three-time Pro Bowl middle linebacker who had led the club in tackles for a franchise-record four consecutive seasons.

Hawthorne’s productivity was off the charts: 16 tackles against the Bears in his first NFL start; eight tackles and two sacks against the Cowboys in his second start; nine tackles and two interceptions the following week against the Lions; 11 tackles the next week; 15 the next week; and back-to-back 10-tackle efforts later in the season.

Despite starting only 11 games, he led the team with 116 tackles, tied for the lead with three interceptions and finished third with four sacks.

But even in his big-slash of a season, some needed ripples were missing in Hawthorne’s game.

“ ‘Heater’ has gone from just worrying about what he’s doing out there to making sure everyone else knows what to do,” is the way defensive coordinator Gus Bradley put it, using the nickname Hawthorne picked up during his rookie season.

Tatupu returned in 2010, so Hawthorne slid to weakside linebacker and again led the team in tackles (105).

This summer, after Tatupu asked to be released rather than reduce his salary, Hawthorne found himself back in the middle. But this time things are different, because Hawthorne is a different player.

“Back then, I was all about, ‘Can I do good? Can I do good?’ ” Hawthorne said. “Now it’s, ‘Can I make us good?’ ”

So far, Hawthorne has made the Seahawks’ defense better than good. His unit ranks among the best in the league in average yards allowed per carry, and the Seahawks reached the halfway point of the season ranked among the top half of the defenses in the league – after finishing 27th, 24th and 30th in his first three seasons.

A lot of the improvement can be traced to the talent the team has brought in – safeties Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor and defensive end Chris Clemons last year; defensive tackle Alan Branch, linebacker K.J. Wright and cornerbacks Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman this year.

But a lot of the credit also needs to go to the wiser, more-comfortable and better-prepared Hawthorne.

“Two years ago when he played in the middle, and he had a helluva season, he was just playing on straight athletic ability,” said Leroy Hill, who has replaced Hawthorne on the weakside. “He’s just a lot smarter now. He knows what’s coming and he’s prepared to make the play, where he was just playing blind before.

“He has progressed amazingly, to the point where I think he has evolved into one of the top middle linebackers in the league.”

Now that is saying a lot. But Bradley looks at it as the natural progression for an instinctive player who has learned to hone and channel those instincts.

“He went from locking in to just the position that he played and getting his duties down to where now he’s calling the whole defense,” Bradley said. “So he went through some growing pains as far as standing in front of the huddle, communicating to the whole team, making checks.

“So the transition for him wasn’t really the play on the field, it was just the whole process of communicating to the other guys. But that’s like all of us, the more and more we do things the better we get at them.”

In only his fourth season, Hawthorne ranks third along with defensive end Red Bryant in terms of tenure on the defense behind Hill (2005) and nose tackle Brandon Mebane (2007).

“I never expected in my fourth year that I’d be one of the ‘seasoned’ vets, but that’s how it’s turned out,” Hawthorne said. “But we’re definitely up for the challenge of being leaders and showing the people the right way.

“Because we have a corps of good young guys and I feel like once we all come together and just grow as a team, and a unit and a defense, I can see us going to a level that will be unmatched.” 

On the field, Hawthorne is seeing things better because he has already seen just about anything an opposing offense can throw at him – or at run at him.

“Definitely,” he said. “Looks are coming back and they’re going into the memory bank. So it’s not the first time I’m seeing a lot of things out there, like it was in ’09. I’m way more familiar with how teams are trying to attack us. I’m way more familiar with football, in general – just how the coaching staff prepares and how they prep us.

“I feel like every year I’ve gained a little bit of game wisdom.”

But one element of his game that didn’t need to change hasn’t – the way he heats things up on the field, which earned him the nickname “Heater” from Tatupu during his rookie training camp.

“That will never change,” Hill said with a laugh. “He’ll always be ‘Heater.’ ”