Ruud joins the competition

Posted Jul 30, 2012

With leading tackler and middle linebacker David Hawthorne gone, either rookie Bobby Wagner or veteran free agent Barrett Ruud will step into the middle of the Seahawks’ Top 10-ranked defense.

The Seahawks weren’t quite sure how they would handle allowing leading tackler and middle linebacker David Hawthorne to leave in free agency.

There was a plan, of course. They would sign a veteran in free agency and then select a rookie in the NFL Draft to compete for the vacated starting job. But you don’t have to be John Steinbeck to know the trials and tribulations of the best-laid plans.

The veteran was signed – Barrett Ruud, a tackling machine during his career with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers whose first season with the Tennessee Titans ended after nine games last year because of a groin injury. Since coming to the Seahawks, he has spent more time rehabbing that injury, as well as knee and shoulder problems, than practicing. He finally has gotten on the field with the start of training-camp practices on Saturday, but obviously needs to make up for lost time.

The rookie was drafted – Utah State’s Bobby Wagner in the second round. If there was a plus to Ruud being out for the spring OTA and minicamp practices, it was that Wagner got all the work with the starters. And he continues to work with the No. 1 unit in camp.

“Every rep counts, so I’m just trying to learn every single play that I’m out there,” Wagner said. “If I mess up, then I’ll watch it in the film room with Ken Norton and he’ll make sure I get it right.”

Where does this situation stand?

Linebackers coach Ken Norton cracked the slightest – and slyest – of smiles on Monday before offering, “It’s a competition.”

And competition is, after all, the cornerstone theme of coach Pete Carroll’s approach to playing this very competitive sport – and preparing to play it.

So far, Norton likes what he is seeing from both players. Wagner with his athleticism and youthful enthusiasm and energy. Ruud with his seen-it-all savvy and veteran experience that can only be gained from playing in this league for 6½ seasons.

Wagner is taking to the defense, and the other defenders are taking to the man in the middle who also makes the calls in the huddle. At 6 feet, 241 pounds, he isn’t the biggest linebacker around. But then if Carroll has shown anything in his first two seasons with the club it’s that he will find a place for players with unique skills.

“He’s young, obviously, but he’s coming around,” nose tackle Brandon Mebane said. “The coaches want him to pick it up, so there is some urgency. But he’s playing behind a good D-line so he’s going to get some good looks.

“All he has to do is continue to learn and he’s going to be all right.”

Wagner was a big-hitting fish in the small pond that is the Western Athletic Conference, being named all conference the past three seasons and tying the school record with 446 career tackles.

“Bobby Wagner is very smart and extremely athletic,” said Norton, a Pro Bowl and Super Bowl-winning linebacker during his career with the Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers. “I’m very happy with his progress so far.”

And if not Wagner, there’s always Ruud. All he did in Tampa, where he played for Seahawks defensive coordinator Gus Bradley, was produce at least 160 tackles in four consecutive seasons with the Buccaneers – including a career-high 205 in 2009.

Like Wagner, the 6-2, 241-pound Ruud never will be confused for Brian Urlacher and, at 28, there are some concerns that all those tackles are starting to take a toll on his body after he missed only one game in six seasons with the Bucs.

But there’s also the mind-over-what’s-the-matter element with Ruud.

“We’re finally getting to see Barrett, and I’m very impressed,” Norton said. “He’s really bright, always in the right spot, a great communicator and he’s certainly going to be the type of guy that going to make our team better.”

Starting with how much Ruud’s experience can help with Wagner’s development. If Wagner finds himself in doubt, all he has to do is ask Ruud – if not Norton.

“You can always learn from a guy who has played the game a long time,” Wagner said of Ruud, who was starting for the Bucs when Wagner was 16 and still in high school. “So I definitely try to watch him and learn from him what I can.”

Offered Norton, “A guy like Bobby needs a guy like Barrett around. Barrett has seen it all, and Bobby is a guy who’s trying to learn it all. They do a good job of contrasting each other. Bobby brings Barrett the youth, and then Barrett brings Bobby the experience.”

Think about it, the last time Ruud wasn’t the fulltime starter was during his second season in 2005.

So while Ruud is now on the field and practicing, Wagner has made some serious moves on the starting job in his absence by showing he can do at this level all the things he did so well in college.

Or as Norton put it, “No buyer’s remorse.”