NEW ORLEANS—Seahawks rookie cornerback Tariq Woolen arrived in Seattle with the nickname Riq the Freak, a nod to his otherworldly combination of speed and size. And during training camp, that same mix of 6-foot-4 frame and 4.26-second 40-yard dash speed led to defensive coordinator Clint Hurtt dubbing him Avatar.
But as fitting as those nicknames are—and for the record, Woolen appreciate both, but prefers Riq the Freak—the best description yet for Woolen's rare traits might have just been given by safety Ryan Neal after Woolen recorded his third interception in as many games during Seattle's Week 5 loss to the Saints.
"It's like watching a rottweiler pup run around the house and he's just bumping into (stuff) because he doesn't know how big he is, it's like that," Neal said. "Watching him just do what he does, he just doesn't even understand. It's like, you are so damn special, and you don't even know it. And I love his attitude, he's just so cool, calm and collected, not getting a big head. He's always looking for that ball, and teams are going to learn, if you try that man… he got it three times."
It's not a perfect simile—Woolen is a lot more in control than a puppy running around the house breaking, um, stuff—but Woolen is indeed wreaking havoc on opposing offenses. Woolen's first big play came on special teams, a blocked field goal that was returned for a touchdown in Week 2, and since then he has recorded an interception in three straight games, returning one for a touchdown last week. Woolen also recovered a fumble forced by fellow rookie corner Coby Bryant, his second forced fumble in as many games.
"He's playing, man, he's just making stuff happen," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "He picked up a fumble too. He's just having a fantastic start. That was a big-time pick, now. That's coming back underneath a comeback route. Those are really hard to get, and a phenomenal catch to finish the play. He's doing great."
As Carroll noted, the interception came when Woolen undercut a comeback route, a very difficult play for a cornerback whose first responsibility in that situation is to stay on top of the receiver and not get beat deep.
"I knew the situation we were in, and going back and looking at film, they like to sit routes around the sticks, especially if it's a long down and distance, but also if you're playing on top," Woolen explained. "I showed him a bail look, and he had been sitting down and stopping every time I bailed, so I bailed, did a tempo with it, and I saw the quarterback's eyes. It was a perfect play right there."
And while Woolen a fifth-round pick who spent most of his college career playing receiver, had confidence in his ability coming into the NFL, not even he could have imagined that he'd be having this much success so soon, having won a starting job and been responsible for so many big moments five games into his career.
"Honestly, I'd have been shocked if you told me that," Woolen said. "That's what happens when you work at it and you have people who trust in you to go out there and make those plays."
Even more encouraging for the Seahawks' future is that Woolen is far from being the only rookie standing out this season. Rookie tackles Charles Cross and Abe Lucas continue to play very well, and are a big factor in Seattle's fast start; outside linebacker Boye Mafe has seen his role continue to grow, and got his first start on Sunday; running back Kenneth Walker had 88 rushing yards, including a 69-yard score; and, as mentioned earlier, fellow corner Bryant, who has taken over the nickel corner role from an injured Justin Coleman, has forced fumbles in consecutive games.
"I always tell Coby, 'Man, we can be the future,'" Woolen said. "I love to see him make plays out there, and he loves to see me make plays."
Said Neal, "I love them both. We're looking forward to them getting better and better each and every week. We told them the other week, 'Y'all ain't rookies no more. You all clearly showed you can play in this league at a high level.' So we're expecting that from them. I'm proud of those kids, for real."
The Seahawks face the Saints in New Orleans for Week 5 of the season at Caesars Superdome on October 9, 2022. Game action photos are presented by Washington's Lottery.