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Published: Sunday, September 9, 2012, 12:01 a.m.

Seahawks: Youth will be served

Carroll has no qualms about playing rookies

  • Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll talks with rookie starting quarterback Russell Wilson prior to Seattle's fourth preseason game against the Raiders.

    Associated Press

    Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll talks with rookie starting quarterback Russell Wilson prior to Seattle's fourth preseason game against the Raiders.

RENTON -- Back in April, before he and general manager John Schneider would assemble a draft class that is looking better and better every day, Pete Carroll was asked about his philosophy on playing rookies.
Before he knew who he would select in the 2012 draft, before he knew that, with 10 picks, the Seahawks would find their starting quarterback, middle linebacker, right guard, a pass-rushing specialist, and a handful of other players who will contribute immediately this season, Carroll stated, as he had before, that he will put the best players on the field, regardless of their experience, contract, or any other outside factor.
Apparently he wasn't kidding.
When the Seahawks open the season today in Arizona, Russell Wilson, a third-round pick who most people figured was too short to play quarterback in the NFL, will be the starter, having won a three-man competition with free-agent signing Matt Flynn, and last year's starter Tarvaris Jackson. Bobby Wagner, Seattle's second-round pick, will start at middle linebacker, meaning he, like Russell, will be the player in communication with the coaches, the player who will make the calls on the field to get the defense properly situated. Seventh-round pick J.R. Sweezy, the most unlikely story of Seattle's preseason, will start a right guard, a position he only started playing this spring when the Seahawks moved the former defensive tackle to the offensive line, a place he hadn't played since he was eight.
If running back Marshawn Lynch can't play because of back spasms -- he is listed as questionable -- that would put another rookie, fourth-round pick Robert Turbin, in the starting lineup. And while he is not a starter in the base defense, first-round pick Bruce Irvin will play plenty, and is expected to be one of Seattle's most impactful defensive players as a pass-rush specialist. Sixth-round pick Winston Guy will also be involved in the defense when Seattle goes to its six- and seven-defensive back packages. And don't be surprised if you see defensive tackle Jaye Howard, a fourth round pick who was incredibly disruptive in the preseason, work his way into the defensive line rotation.
So yeah, the rookies will play, and they'll have huge impact, good or bad, on a team that fully expects to contend for an NFC West title.
But it wasn't always this way for Carroll. Back when he was the head coach of the New York Jets and New England Patriots, and when he was an NFL assistant before that, he subscribed to the long-held belief that rookies will get you beat.
"One of my favorite coaches ever, Bud Grant, said one time, 'For every young guy you start, you lose a game,'" Carroll said before the draft. "That was classic, traditional thinking."
That changed for Carroll when he took over at USC and went into full-on comPete mode. If an incoming freshman was better than a three-year starter, the job was his. If an 18-year-old quarterback was more skilled and polished than that fifth-year senior who knew the playbook backwards and forward, Carroll would hand the keys to the offense to the kid.
Carroll brought that philosophy with him to Seattle, and this year more than ever, even as the Seahawks expect to take a big leap forward, they will rely on rookies to help them reach their goals. In 2010, two rookies, Russell Okung and Earl Thomas, both started right away, but they were both taken in the top half of the first round, so that was hardly surprising. Last year Seattle's first two picks, James Carpenter and John Moffitt were opening day starters on the offensive line, and undrafted rookie Doug Baldwin was the slot receiver. Linebacker K.J. Wright and cornerback Richard Sherman became starters later in the year. This season, the Seahawks are relying on even more rookies, including Wilson, who plays the most important position in the game.
Yet even though nobody knows exactly how these rookies will respond, everyone from the coaching staff to the veterans on the team to the rookies themselves are confident that talent is more important than experience. That is particularly true at quarterback, where Wilson, who has poise and maturity beyond his years, has quickly won over his teammates, just as he did when he won the starting job as a redshirt freshman at NC State, and just as he did after transferring to Wisconsin, where he quickly was named the starting quarterback and team captain.
"The strides that Russell has made to be our starting quarterback, you could kind of see all of the extra work that he puts in, the amount of seriousness he brings into the job," said Lynch. "It's crazy, because I know as a rookie, I was nowhere near as detail oriented as he is as far as coming in on a day off. A day off to a rookie, that's a day off--not too many of them see the facilities--but he's in here throwing balls, doing extra work in the training room, so you could kind of sense that he came in with kind of the mindset that, 'Yeah I'm a rookie, but that don't mean nothing.'"
And the Seahawk better hope they're right. It's one thing if a team coming off a terrible season starts a bunch of young players as it rebuilds; it's entirely different to rely on rookies, and especially a rookie quarterback, when you fancy yourself a playoff contender. Carroll chose to start Wilson over Flynn; he chose to not make a big push to re-sign David Hawthorne, knowing there would be options to replace him in the draft; he chose to hand the a starting job to Sweezy over John Moffitt, who was playing well last season before a knee injury ended his season.
Even as Carroll shows his confidence in young players, putting them in important roles, he also admits that, heading into the season opener, "You're still taking a chance going with the younger guy when you play them, because you don't know how they'll react." The Seahawks are taking a gamble, there is no mistaking that, particularly at quarterback. If Wilson flops, or if calling the defense proves to be too much for Wagner, or if Sweezy is overwhelmed by a talented Arizona defensive line, the Seahawks can't use youth as an excuse.
Of course, with the way this rookie class has played in the preseason, and with the confidence these players have, nobody thinks excuses will be necessary when the dust settles. This rookie class can be something special, and they're well aware of that.
"We definitely always talk about that," Wilson said. "We have meetings and everything, we talk to one another, and we have had some group rookie meetings where we have talked about how we can impact this football team, and also how we can impact the National Football League too. We have a lot of talent, from our first rounder in Bruce Irvin to the last guy picked in J.R. Sweezy and everybody else too."
Herald Writer John Boyle: jboyle@heraldnet.com.

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