Pete Carroll learned a lot coaching under Minnesota Vikings legend Bud Grant. One Grant philosophy Carroll would eventually abandon, however, was the belief that playing rookies translated to losing games.
When Carroll finally had full control of a football program at USC, he was able to embrace the idea of letting everyone, freshmen included, compete for starting jobs. Carroll brought that same mindset with him to the NFL, letting rookies battle for and win starting jobs at a rate that would have probably driven an old-school coach like Grant mad.
Yet what Carroll didn’t realize right away at USC was how those freshmen would contribute to his team’s success. Yes, some college freshmen or NFL rookies are able to thrive from day one, but plenty of others will spend that first year improving and learning from their experience so that they can turn small early contributions into big late-season ones.
As Carroll and his coaches and staff evaluated their teams at USC, they realized that one reason those teams finished seasons stronger than they started was the improvement of freshmen throughout the year, and it’s hardly a coincidence that the Seahawks have seen a similar pattern develop, going a league-best 29-6 in November and December since 2012, a season in which rookie quarterback Russell Wilson helped spark a second-half surge.
“That kind of came around to our thinking (at USC) after looking back at how well we played in the second half of seasons,” Carroll said. “We finished pretty well in those years, and trying to figure out why we were strong at the end of the year and all that, we kind of attributed that (young players developing) was part of the factor.”
Which brings us to the 2016 Seahawks and a big rookie class that is poised to be a big part of the team’s success in the second half of the season. The Seahawks have already received significant contributions from their 14-player rookie class, including a combined 14 starts by guard Germain Ifedi, tackle George Fant, defensive tackle Jarran Reed, running back C.J. Prosise and tight end Nick Vannett. In last week’s game against New England, the Seahawks had four rookies start on offense thanks to Vannett being on the field for a two-tight end set.
But what is even more encouraging than what those players have already done is what they could bring to the team over the final seven games of the season. Ifedi, Seattle’s first round pick, continues to improve at right guard after missing the first three games with an ankle injury, while Fant has taken such big strides in three starts at left tackle that offensive line coach Tom Cable said Wednesday that the former Western Kentucky basketball standout will keep that job even with Bradley Sowell returning from injury (Cable said Sowell will compete for the starting job at right tackle currently held by Garry Gilliam). Reed has been solid in the middle of Seattle’s defensive line all season, Vannett’s role continues to grow, and Prosise was outstanding in his first start last week, accounting for 153 yards of total offense.
“This is the turn,” Carroll said. “Just to give you an example, George Fant didn’t have a missed assignment this game. That’s a big improvement for him. It’s hard for anybody to do that in any position. Not that he’s going to never miss an assignment again, but he made it through the game in that regard. That’s the kind of improvement and stuff you can count on seeing as these guys keep playing. A few weeks ago that wasn’t the case. Germain is doing better, Nick is feeling more comfortable playing. All of those guys are getting the benefits of the experience that they have gained so far.”
Prosise, who missed four games with a wrist injury, has had what Carroll described as a “quick emergence” since coming back, and he figures to be a big part of the offense going forward. But maybe even more encouraging is what could happen with the offensive line as not just Fant and Ifedi grow, but as an entire unit that is relatively new and inexperienced comes together.
“To me, the sky is the limit,” Cable said. “Everything about offensive linemen in particular, offensive football is—you guys want us to win right now and the fans want us to win, we want to win right now; we all know that—it’s growth and development. You want to get to November really improving. You want to play well in November to get ready for December to get ready for whatever is next. That’s really what our program is about, developing and growing.”
Center Justin Britt, who started at right tackle as a rookie, said the game “slowed down a lot” for him as his rookie season progressed, and he sees the same thing happening for Fant and Ifedi.
“The more knowledge you build, how you study film, the reps you get in practice, the more comfortable you get,” Britt said. “And trusting yourself is really huge. You’ve got to be confident in yourself that you can go out there and perform at a high level and at a high speed.
“I’m very confident. I’m excited. People like Germain, George, people who haven’t been in the system are starting to buy into and find themselves within it… We just needed game reps. It hurt when Brad went down and we had to restart at left tackle, but George has been great filling in and doing his part.”
Receiver Doug Baldwin, who was Seattle’s leading receiver as a rookie in 2011, called the early part of that season “a whirlwind,” but eventually he settled down, and now he’s seeing the same thing from the numerous rookies contributing on offense.
“They’ve started to pick up the system, they’ve started to feel comfortable in the system, and now they’re able to be the playmakers that they are,” Baldwin said. “When you go through that process and you gain that experience, the game slows down for you, and I think it’s been doing that for these guys, especially George Fant. He played excellent last week.”
That players and coaches alike singled out Fant this week is hardly a coincidence. What Fant has accomplished this season is nothing short of remarkable given how far he has had to come as a football player. Fant didn’t play high school football, and played basketball for four years for the Hilltoppers, only taking up football after exhausting his basketball eligibility. Fant’s first goal was to continue his basketball career after college, but when people close to him started to convince him that football was a real alternative, suddenly the NFL didn’t sound so bad compared to trying to carve out a professional hoops career in Europe. During that one season of football at Western Kentucky, Fant barely played, but he was putting in the work that would eventually help him catch on so quickly in the NFL.
“I didn’t go back to play, I used my fifth year to learn,” Fant said. “People were kind of making fun of me because I didn’t play, but the whole time I was just watching and learning everything, every position. Offense, defense—I played like four or five different positions at Western, so I was just learning everything.”
Fant arrived in Seattle as a raw, undrafted rookie who showed enough potential to earn a spot on the 53-man roster, then after developing more quickly than anyone could have realistically expected, he was called upon to start when Sowell went down with a knee injury. As expected, Fant has made his share of mistakes and been beaten at times, but he kept improving to the point that, as Carroll noted, there were no blown assignments against New England on Sunday night.
“I’m definitely getting more comfortable each snap, each rep,” Fant said. “… Things are slowing down. I’m just trying to build off of it, take it game-by-game, rep-by-rep.”
The Seahawks and the Eagles have played 14 times, splitting their all-time series 7-7. The two teams will face off again this Sunday during Week 11 at CenturyLink Field.