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Wilson preparing no differently for historic start

Posted Sep 6, 2012

Russell Wilson will become only the third rookie quarterback in franchise history to start a season opener for the Seahawks when they play the Cardinals in Arizona on Sunday.

Jim Zorn. Rick Mirer. And now Russell Wilson.

The Seahawks’ third-round pick in April’s NFL Draft is about to go where only two other rookie quarterbacks in franchise history have gone when he starts Sunday’s regular-season opener against the Cardinals in Arizona.

“I don’t get caught up in it,” Wilson said Thursday when presented with what’s about to transpire. “I’m excited about the opportunity. It’s another football game in a place I’ve never played before. But it’s the same distance on the field.

“The good thing is just to be able to get on the football field with these guys again and to have the opportunity is very, very big in my life.”

And what a life Wilson already has lived at the ripe old age of 23. He was a productive starter at North Carolina State and the University of Wisconsin. He was a good enough baseball player that he could have selected that sport as his profession.

The more you talk to Wilson the more you realize just how grounded he is. The term “mature beyond his years” is inadequate. To say he has “presence” doesn’t convey just how forceful he is without forcing it.

“You only get so many days in your lifetime and you want to maximize every day,” said Wilson, who added that his philosophy is grounded in his faith. “My dad used to always tell me, ‘You have your birth and you have your death. It’s all about that hash mark in between.’

“So I’m trying to do everything I can to maximize my potential, maximize my opportunity. That’s the way I look at life … and the way I practice and the way I play.”

And he does it one day at a time, so Sunday will have to wait until Sunday.

But it’s also impossible to sidestep the significance of what he’s about to do – what he’s been preparing all week, and basically most of his life, to do.

Wilson already is one-fifth of what’s being dubbed the Fab Five, those rookie QBs who will start for their team’s this weekend: Andrew Luck (Colts), Robert Griffin III (Redskins), Ryan Tannehill (Dolphins), Brandon Weeden (Browns) and Wilson. It’s the most rookies to start at the pivotal position since at least 1950, with the previous high being three in 1968 (Dan Darragh for the Bills, Greg Landry for the Lions and Dewey Warren for the Bengals) and 1969 (Greg Cook for the Bengals, James Harris for the Bills and Roger Staubach for the Cowboys).

But while Luck and Griffin went 1-2 overall in the draft, and Tannehill (8) and Weeden (22) also were selected in the first round, Wilson was the 75th pick overall. He will be the first third-round pick to start an opener since Joe Ferguson did it for the Bills in 1973.

So Wilson’s rapid ascension to starter status is historic stuff not only for the franchise, but in the 93-year history of the league.

Zorn has been where Wilson is about to go, but the Seahawks’ first QB who now coaches the position for the Kansas City Chiefs is not about to offer any advice.

ZORN, MIRER AND NOW WILSON

Russell Wilson will become the third rookie quarterback to start a regular season opener for the Seahawks when they play the Cardinals in Arizona on Sunday. The others were Jim Zorn (1976) and Rick Mirer ((1993). Here's a look at their first game performances, and rookie season totals:

Jim Zorn      
Opponent (outcome) Att. Comp. Yds. TD Int. Rating
St. Louis Cardinals (L, 30-24) 37 17 292 2 2 68.7
14-game season (2-12) 439 208 2,571 12 27 49.5
Rick Mirer      
Opponent (outcome) Att. Comp. Yds. TD Int. Rating
at San Diego Chargers (L, 18-12) 27 20 154 0 1 72.1
16-game season (6-10) 486 257 2,833 12 17 67.0

“I won’t advise him at all,” Zorn said this week from his office at Arrowhead Stadium. “He’s got excellent coaches. He’s had a great college career. He’s going to utilize some of the things he’s already experienced. But also, I think the coaches are there to give him a sense for the tempo of things – and it will step up for him from preseason to the regular season.

“Nobody knows Russell Wilson better right now than (QB coach) Carl Smith, and he knows exactly how he wants to prepare him – and he really knows partly how he wants him to feel. You can’t get too excited. You can’t get too nervous. And I have to feel they’ve got a good plan for his preparation and how to handle the excitement of a first NFL start more than anyone else.

“So none of what I might say matters.”

But Zorn did catch glimpses of Wilson during his finest hour in the preseason – that 44-14 victory against the Chiefs in Kansas City in Week 3, when Wilson directed six consecutive scoring drives in starting his first NFL game.

“He’s a pretty mature kid,” Zorn said. “From the things that I remember from interviewing him at the (NFL scouting) combine and just getting a feel for him, it’s not surprising that he has done well.”

Things were different when Zorn made his inaugural start for the expansion Seahawks in 1976. The league was different. The game was different. The circumstances were different.

“We had just gotten out of six weeks of training camp, and we had just shuffled running backs,” Zorn said with a laugh. “There was a guy named Ralph Nelson. I didn’t even know his name. So during the game, I would say, ‘Hey, No. 44, on this play you do this.’ That’s how new this whole thing was.

“I was trying to prepare myself. But we had just gotten Steve Largent right after training camp (in a trade with the Oilers) and then this running back, No. 44. That’s what was going on. So the thing that was surprising to me wasn’t being the starter, it was the shuffling of players in and out.”

But all the newness also came with a perk.

“I was excited. The team was excited. I think the whole city was excited,” Zorn said. “Because it was so new, and we were going to establish traditions. That was another thing that was on my mind – that while we had some veteran players, we didn’t have a veteran team.”

Zorn would remain the only rookie QB to start an opener for the Seahawks until 1993, when Rick Mirer did it after being the second pick overall in the draft. Mirer, who now owns Mirror Wine Company in St. Helena, Calif., did not return phone calls to be interviewed for this story.

But during the week leading up to his first start, Mirer offered, “Everybody says the first year is going to be hard. I’m not going to let it be hard if it doesn’t have to be hard. But I know it isn’t going to be easy.”

Mirer would lead the Seahawks to a 6-10 record, a definite improvement from the 2-14 record in 1992 that got the team the lofty pick it used to draft him. He was voted to the all-rookie team and finished second in balloting for NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year after setting league rookie records for attempts (486), completions (274) and passing yards (2,833) – breaking the marks Zorn established (439, 208 and 2,571) in 1976, when he was voted NFC Offensive Rookie of the Year.

So Wilson has a couple of tough acts to follow with those rookie QB performances that were turned in long before he was born (Zorn) and when he was only five years old (Mirer).

But then Wilson has turned in one surprise after another since coming to Seattle, starting with throwing himself into the competition to be the starter during May’s rookie minicamp and continuing until he had won the job with his performance during the preseason.

As incumbent starter Tarvaris Jackson put it before he was traded to the Bills, “Russell, he’s not like a regular rookie.”

But Wilson will face the typical trials and tribulations every rookie QB does – starting with the Cardinals’ aggressive defense that will try to pressure him into making mistakes. One thing that will help him is that Wilson goes into this game with an opponent-specific game plan, rather than having the entire playbook to deal with.

“The cool part of it is, it’s an actual game plan,” offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell said. “Whereas in training camp, we really worked on the seven installs that we had put in and really continued to rotate all that stuff to get him familiar with the whole playbook.

“Now, it’s really condensed down. There are specific things we’re trying to do this week. So in terms of how we handle him, it’s dialed back a little bit. I definitely think it helps. He can’t get really just any call out of the playbook. Now it’s, ‘OK, these are the selected plays that we’d like to go with.’ They’re all plays that he can execute and all plays that we’ve done at some point, because we need to put him in a position to be successful.”

Has Wilson ever been anything else? At two colleges, despite arriving at NC State as the fourth or fifth QB on the depth chart and then transferring to Wisconsin last year. In two sports, as he also was selected in the Major League Baseball draft. As a rookie who went out and won the Seahawks’ starting job, against long odds and quality competition.

For Wilson, it’s always been about the preparation; and how others have perceived him because of his attention to the most-minute minutiae.

“I’ve been the same way my whole life, just by the way my parents raised me in terms of focusing on the little details, the attention to detail,” he said. “I’ve always been that type of guy – the first one to arrive, the last one to leave – just because I love the game. And when you love something and you care about it and you really are devoted to the game, you’ll do whatever it takes to be great.

“That’s my mentality every day I wake up.”