When Tariq Woolen took the field for Seahawks rookie minicamp, the physical talents of the fifth-round pick, who at 6-foot-4 ran a 4.26 second 40-yard dash at the scouting combine, were immediately evident.
It was obvious why the cornerback out of UTSA arrived with the nickname "Riq the Freak."
But there was something else that stood out about the new Seahawks cornerback besides his athletic ability. According to defensive coordinator Clint Hurtt, Woolen, "couldn't catch a cold in Alaska."
Hurtt even joked with Woolen, a former college receiver, "now I know why they moved your ass over to defense."
Now, in Woolen's defense, he says his hands weren't nearly as bad as he showed upon arrival in Seattle, and said nerves played a role in whatever issue he had catching the ball—"I just was kind of nervous kind of because I was new to the team," he said— but he also knew it would serve him well to put in some extra work.
After seeing Marquise Goodwin catch tennis balls after practice, Woolen started joining the veteran receiver in that activity. Woolen, along with running backs coach Chad Morton, devised a plan that has practice squad quarterback Sean Mannion throw him and the rest of the defensive backs a pass after every play in practice.
"When we first got here in rookie minicamp and we are going through OTAs, he couldn't catch a cold in Alaska," Hurtt said. "It was rough. He was dropping everything, and I'm sitting here looking at the film like he has stone hands. I was messing with him every day. The thing about him, he sees Marquise Goodwin and the receivers out there, and they are hitting the tennis balls off the wall. So, he just joins in on that. Then, he sees guys on the jug machine, and he starts catching the ball off the jugs. Then, the quarterbacks are throwing him the football, and he's come full circle.
"It's not just the talent, it's the work ethic…Work will never fail you. If you are willing to put in the work, physically, and mentally, and the things that you have to do to improve your overall game, it will never let you down, and the kid is willing to do that."
The payoff, of course, has been obvious for Woolen, who last weekend set a franchise rookie record with his sixth interception of the season. Woolen, who is tied for the NFL lead in interceptions and who leads all cornerbacks in Pro-Bowl voting, recognized that putting in the work was essential to succeeding in the NFL, regardless of his otherworldly physical gifts.
"Tariq has a habit that in every play we take in practice, he catches the ball," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "He's got Sean Mannion working him out every day. It just makes sense that he is more confident, more comfortable, and Sean moves the ball around on him and stuff like that. He has improved his hands since he has been here with us. He wanted to get a rhythm to his day that he can work on it. We fitted it into practice. It's pretty cool. After the play is over, he's coming back, 'boom,' he's catching the football. He might catch a couple of them in that time frame. He's repping it out and he has really shown that he can make a difference."
Woolen estimates he catches upwards of 60-70 passes from Mannion every practice, with the veteran quarterback firing him passes after plays and even when Woolen is coming in and out of the huddle.
"I heard in the NFL, they care about great corners, but also cornerbacks who can give the ball back to the offense, it makes them ever better," Woolen said. "Shoot, every time I'd drop a pass, I'd be mad, because I'm like, dang these guys are seeing this and they're going to think, 'Oh, he can't catch the ball.' But that's what practice is for, and that's where building different routines to help with catching come into place, and it's been paying off."
Having caught so many balls in practice, Woolen is that much more comfortable making a play in games.
"Whenever the ball is near me, I try to get my hands on it," he said. "(The practice work) helps with my instincts, and it helps with me being comfortable making plays on the ball, because I've done it before. All the work I've put in attacking the ball and catching the ball is worth it; I know I can just trust my technique."
So does that mean the secret behind Woolen's incredible rookie season is a practice squad quarterback with three NFL starts under his belt?
Mannion laughed at the suggestion, saying, "Tariq Woolen is behind all those interceptions. For me, I can stay loose, and for him he can catch a few more balls, so it works out… He doesn't need to thank me. He's making a lot of plays, he's having a great year. He's a really, really great player for us."
Woolen's rapid growth has him not only breaking franchise records, it has also helped emerge as a budding star in the NFL. Woolen's play has gotten attention on social media from former greats ranging from Hall of Famer Charles Woodson to Seahawks Legend Richard Sherman, and he currently leads all NFL cornerbacks in Pro-Bowl voting. As well-deserved as the accolades are for the player named NFL Defensive Rookie of the Month in October, Woolen hasn't let success go to his head.
"He has been really appreciative of what is happening, and he's excited about it, and he's looking to find his ways to compete," Carroll said. "He has developed a curiosity that really good players have that helps them to keep looking on figuring out on how they can do better. He has asked a lot of questions. He talks to everybody that he can talk to. He's just handled it really well. He's been very even keeled about it. He gets mad when he gets beat when he doesn't do something right or he misses a read or something like that. He'll get frustrated with himself, but he seems to be bouncing back really well which is a huge asset to a corner. So, at this early stage for where he is, I think he has it wired pretty good. We just have to keep going now. Each week is a new mystery to us in some extent, so we have to see how he handles it."
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