RENTON — If Allen Bradford could do it all over again, he admits he might not have decided to play for Pete Carroll at USC.
Seven years later, Bradford is battling to keep alive his professional career with Carroll’s Seattle Seahawks, one of the few coaches or teams in the league who would likely think it wise to move a player to a position he hadn’t played since high school.
You see, as a senior at Colton High School, Bradford was one of the nation’s top recruits as a linebacker, but he was also one heck of a running back. So early in his freshman season at USC the Trojans had depth issues in the backfield, Carroll moved Bradford to offense, where he would stay throughout his college career.
He did well enough primarily as a backup running back to be a sixth-round pick in 2011, but Bradford never felt he was playing the right position.
“I never felt like I should have been playing running back, but Coach Carroll made that decision in college,” Bradford said. “And it was a way for me to get on the field faster, so I made that decision and I lived with it throughout the time I spent there. And it’s just something I didn’t want to do but I had to do.”
Bradford isn’t bitter that Carroll moved him to running back. He didn’t fight the decision then, and it’s not like it was a terrible experience playing for one of the best programs in the nation, but he does concede now that, “If I’d have known that, I probably wouldn’t have went to SC.”
Yet now Bradford is grateful for Carroll and the Seahawks for letting him attempt to be the NFL linebacker he always dreamed he could be despite not playing the position in college. After Tampa Bay released Bradford midway through his rookie season and he signed with Seattle, he immediately talked with linebackers coach Ken Norton Jr. and Carroll about giving linebacker a try.
They were on board, and after spending the rest of that year and most of 2012 on Seattle’s practice squad — he was signed to the 53-man roster late last season and appeared in one game — Bradford now looks like he just might make this experiment pay off for him and the Seahawks.
“For him to give me that second chance to play linebacker was crazy, because I would have never thought … I thought playing defense was over for me,” Bradford said.
When camp opened, Bradford looked very much like a bubble player, and while he still has work to do to lock up a spot on Seattle’s 53-man roster, he has certainly helped his chances with his play thus far. Bradford has spent most of training camp as the No. 2 middle linebacker behind Bobby Wagner. And with Wagner battling a shoulder injury of late, Bradford has gotten significant playing time with the No. 1 defense and started last week’s preseason game in San Diego, which he finished with a game-high eight tackles.
“It’s different,” Norton said of Bradford’s career path. “Not too many players in the history of ball have been able to go from running back to linebacker in the pros, but he has been terrific. He has been smart enough, he has been tough enough, he has been reliable, he has been passionate, spending a lot of time in the classroom, so I don’t have anything to say negative. For him it’s a matter of reps, seeing football, feeling football, hitting people, things happening fast and how he can play in the games, so the game reps are really big evaluators for him.”
Bradford agrees with Norton’s assessment that game reps are big for him at this point. It’s one thing to close on a teammate in practice then let up before finishing a tackle. It’s something entirely different to bear down on Antonio Gates at full speed only to have the All-Pro tight end cut and leave you running in a circle to get back into the play, which is what happened to Bradford on the first drive of Thursday’s game.
“Playing in space, I need to come more under control,” Bradford said. “Tackling in practice and tackling in a game is totally and completely different. The Gates play, I was just coming down out of control and not thinking that he can’t probably outrun me, he’s probably going to step by me and let me run by him. It’s just the little things like that I need to tune in and I’m working on it in practice.”
When Bradford’s teammates, particularly those in the secondary, talk about recognizing formations and adjusting on the fly, he realizes he is still mostly just reacting to the play as it happens, another sign of how much catching up there is to do.
“I’m so close,” he said, “but I’m still so far away.”
Maybe, but Bradford is a lot closer to being an NFL linebacker than he ever could have imagined possible when he made an unwelcome position switch seven years ago.
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org.