After gaining 10 yards on a third-quarter run in last week's preseason opener, running back Thomas Rawls turned to the Seahawks sideline and motioned to his coaches. It was running back sign language for "keep feeding me the ball," and the Seahawks did just that, giving the undrafted rookie out of Central Michigan a team-high nine carries.
A quarter later, with Seattle's pass protection struggling, R.J. Archer looked to his check-down option over and over, and Rod Smith caught four passes for 29 yards on that one possession. Smith, another undrafted rookie running back, carried two more times on that drive for 18 yards, then Rawls punctuated the drive with a 19-yard touchdown catch.
Few things excited football fans more than young running backs with upside, and in the form of Rawls and Smith, who both have enjoyed solid training camps, and who both carried that into the preseason opener, the Seahawks have two of them.
With Marshawn Lynch sitting out voluntary workouts, and with Robert Turbin recovering from hip surgery, the Rawls and Smith buzz started to build during OTAs and minicamp, and now even with those two backs and Christine Michael all in the mix, the two rookies continue to look like they belong.
"I've heard about it from reporters and stuff like that, but I try not to get too distracted by it," Rawls said of the growing buzz surrounding his roster chances. "I'm grateful that the fans cheer me on and look at me as a good player, but I really don't let that get to my head. I'm just trying to go out here and improve."
Next up for both is building off of those performances in Friday's game at Kansas City. Based on past history, Lynch won't play much, if at all, against the Chiefs, which means that once Turbin gets his work in, Michael and the two rookies will get ample opportunity to prove themselves.
"We just want to see how comfortable they are, see how creative they are, what is their style?" Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "Thomas had a real clear style in college. He was very physical and ran at guys really well, so I'd like to see where that shows up. Both those guys did a nice job. Both got a little excited with their opportunities and didn't make the most of them yet, but they have had a lot of work, they're ready to play, and they will play significantly."
The Seahawks kept three running backs on the roster for most of last season, and Lynch and Turbin are entrenched as the No. 1 and 2 backs, so winning a job will likely either mean beating Michael for a roster spot or playing so well that Carroll is convinced he has to find room on the roster for a fourth back. Rawls and Smith are built differently, and as such have very different styles—Rawls is listed at 5-foot-9, 215 pounds while Smith is 6-3, 231—but even if they're different players, they're very much in direct competition for opportunities in practice and preseason games, and perhaps for a job as well. But that competition hasn't turned into a negative thing between the two.
"We're both fighting for jobs, but we motivate each other, we help each other, we tell each other when we're doing something wrong or doing something good, we're there for each other," said Smith, who played at Ohio State. "I mean, we really don't got no choice but to be there for each other; we're roommates. No, but it's all love with me and him. He's a dude that I really admire… We're teammates, so we're trying to get everybody better."
In addition to helping each other, Smith and Rawls both say they've also improved thanks to some tutoring from a player they looked up to when they were young—and get ready to feel old—Seahawks 29-year-old running back Marshawn Lynch.
"On the field and off the field, he's teaching me a lot," Rawls said moments after walking off the practice field with Lynch. "We just took a long walk over here, and he was talking me about some things in today's practice. He took me under his wing from Day 1, and I'm just so blessed to be here and have the opportunity to play under him. I've been learning a lot; there's so much room for improvement. I'm excited to have him as a veteran leader on this team."
Added Smith: "He's a real good dude. He's coaching us up a lot. When you grow up watching a dude, trying to imitate his running style, it's a blessing just be able to get out here and learn from him. He makes you a better running back."