RENTON — David Hawthorne’s impact on last weekend’s win was readily apparent when, with San Diego driving for a likely score, he lit up Chargers running back Mike Tolbert to force a fumble at the Seattle 7-yard line.
What was less obvious, but equally impressive, was the play he made in the fourth quarter that helped create another San Diego turnover. When middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu put Hawthorne in a rather unenviable position — one-on-one coverage on All-Pro tight end Antonio Gates — the third-year linebacker responded, blanketing Gates with tight coverage, leading to low pass that Gate tipped to safety Earl Thomas.
“No one gives the credit where it’s due, but that was all set up by Heater,” Tatupu explained, using the nickname given to Hawthorne for his hard-hitting style.
The play led to a Seattle field goal, and was just another reminder of how valuable Hawthorne has become to the Seahawks defense while adjusting to a new position. Hawthorne, who the Seahawks acquired as an undrafted free agent two years ago, burst onto the scene last year when he started 11 games in place of an injured Tatupu and went on to lead the team with 116 tackles.
And because Hawthorne was so good in 2009, the Seahawks decided they needed to find a way to get him on the field even when Tatupu is healthy. When the team reported for minicamp in the spring, linebackers coach Ken Norton Jr. convinced defensive coordinator Gus Bradley that they should look at Hawthorne at weakside linebacker, a position he had never previously played, even in high school. With starting linebacker Leroy Hill battling injuries and legal issues, Hawthorne grabbed the starting job by the reins, and despite the fact that he’s still learning on the fly, he is thriving in his new role.
“He’s a beast, plain and simple,” Tatupu said. “Anything we ask him to do, he does it.”
On that fourth-quarter interception, the Chargers put Gates in motion in a formation the Seahawks hadn’t seen, Tatupu said. And rather than shift another defender to that side to give Hawthorne help, Tatupu showed his faith in a player who was playing his third career game at a new position.
“Heater looks at me and points at Gates, and I go, ‘That’s you, kid,’” Tatupu said with a laugh. “And (Lawyer Milloy) comes down the other way and says, ‘What are we doing?’ and I go, ‘We’ve got the backs, he’s on his own.’
“And he goes over there, and I’m talking, shadows him. If the ball was thrown where it should be, it’s an interception, but it’s thrown just out of his reach — great throw by (Philip) Rivers, but Gates tipped it up — and it’s a pick.”
For a team that lives by head coach Pete Carroll’s “It’s all about the ball” mantra, the day couldn’t have gone much better for Hawthorne.
“We have a philosophy that we’re going to define ourselves by takeaway,” Hawthorne said. “Every takeaway we got was a good moment for us, because that’s how we define ourselves as a defense.”
In a lot of ways, this is the second straight year of major adjustments for Hawthorne. As a rookie Hawthorne was a special teams mainstay, who wasn’t really involved in the defense. But when Tatupu went down last season, Hawthorne was thrown into the starting lineup at the position that is essentially the quarterback of the defense.
Then, just when he started getting comfortable with that role, the Seahawks asked Hawthorne to try something new. To make matters even more difficult, he spent the preseason working at both positions while Tatupu battled a hamstring injury. But even at a new position, Hawthorne says last year’s experience has made the adjustment easier this season.
“It just gave me a lot of experience,” he said. “The first-game jitters weren’t there. I just feel like a veteran almost. Not so much in my experience, but in my preparation, not being all wide-eyed. It was a totally different situation. I was totally prepared to be in there as a starter as opposed to just being thrown in.”
And just three games into the season at a new position, Hawthorne is showing just how valuable he is to the defense, not just as a playmaker, but because his versatility gives the Seahawks options at linebacker.
“He’s very versatile,” Carroll said. “He can do a lot of stuff. He doesn’t have any trouble playing the Mike (middle) linebacker or the Will (weakside) linebacker spot at all, he plays them both interchangeably with us now. He’s really an attack player, goes after stuff in a way that classic linebackers do.
“He has really good instincts about it, so it really doesn’t matter where we line him up. … He just has a real good sense for the game and he really can attack; had a great play down near the goal line this week. He’s very consistent and he’s very versatile and he understands, he can make the calls, and he’s a great understudy for taking over for Lofa (Tatupu) some day at the Mike spot, but he seems to be a natural Will and I think he’s off to a really good start this year.”
Herald Writer John Boyle: email@example.com. For more Seahawks coverage, check out the Seahawks blog at heraldnet.com/seahawksblog