Seahawks grooming rookie Wagner to start at linebacker

RENTON — Bobby Wagner may not be perfect yet, but the Seahawks believe he’s ready. Or at least getting there.

Seattle’s second-round pick in this year’s draft, Wagner is the frontrunner to start at middle linebacker, but before he’s ready for the regular season, Wagner figures to get plenty of action during the preseason. Wagner was on the field deep into the second half last weekend long after the other starters, and even many of the second-stringers, were out of the game. Tonight it will be more of the same when the Seahawks play in Denver.

It’s not that the Seahawks don’t have faith in Wagner, they are just trying to speed up his development as much as possible so he can tackle (bad pun intended) one of the most important defensive positions in football.

“You can see that all of the potential is there,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. “I said to Bobby (Wednesday), ‘I just want you to show that you’re confident and okay, you can attack more, and don’t worry about making mistakes, you’re going to make some.’ I want to see him really play a hard-nosed game this week. … He’s going to be a fine player there is no question about it.”

That Wagner already is preparing to take on such an important role — the middle linebacker makes the calls on defense, and like a quarterback has a speaker in his helmet to communicate with coaches — is kind of funny if you know his background with Carroll. Back when Carroll was still at USC and Wagner was a standout at Ontario High School, just a short drive east of USC’s campus, Carroll wasn’t really interested in Wagner. Carroll did come to Ontario, but it was to see cornerback Omar Bolden, who ended up at Arizona State.

If Carroll did talk to Wagner, it wasn’t about coming to USC.

“He might have said ‘What’s up,’ or whatever, but he wasn’t recruiting me, that’s for sure,” Wagner said.

Of course Wagner can laugh about that snub now that he’s in the NFL, and likely on his way to a starting job as a rookie. But for players like Wagner and fellow rookie and Utah State alum Robert Turbin, being overlooked by bigger colleges can still serve as motivation, even after they’ve made it to the NFL.

“That’s going to stay with me, because we don’t get much respect when we come from small schools,” Wagner said. “We’re just living proof that it doesn’t matter where you play.”

Wagner’s athleticism was one of the biggest reasons he was drafted, and is what will get him onto the field right away even if he is bound to make some inevitable rookie mistakes.

His ability to pick up the playbook and impress coaches in the meeting room has also made an impact. During offseason workouts, Carroll said the plan this year, if Wagner was starting, would be for outside linebacker K.J. Wright to have the speaker in his helmet and make the calls so as to take some of the burden off Wagner. That changed when Wagner proved to be a quick study.

“(Linebackers coach Ken Norton) felt like he was capable of handling it,” Carroll said. “He was with him in the room all the time, and he was right, he can. He handles it very well. You know he has been calling defenses for years so it was not a big deal to him at all. He is doing well.”

Of course, there are plenty of people other than Wagner to keep an eye on tonight. So, while the outcome of the game probably won’t keep you interested, here are five other Seahawks to watch Saturday night:

Receiver Terrell Owens

Owens made quite a splash when he signed with Seattle last week, but tonight will be mark his first (fake) game action with the Seahawks. Owens has looked impressive in practice so far, but the 37-year-old still has a lot of work to do to secure a roster spot. Making a few big plays, like Braylon Edwards was able to do last week, could go a long ways for Owens.

Cornerback Marcus Trufant

The former Pro Bowler is trying to learn a new role playing inside in nickel packages after being an every-down cornerback for most of his career. Roy Lewis is leading the competition for that spot, but Trufant is expected to get significant playing time there in this game as he tries to find a new role on the only team he has known in his NFL career.

Guard J.R. Sweezy

No, watching offensive line play isn’t much fun for the average football fan, but keep an eye on Sweezy, who has made a surprisingly quick climb up the depth chart. Sweezy, a seventh-round pick, was a defensive lineman in college, and after switching position a few months ago, he is already making an impact. With John Moffitt recovering from elbow surgery, don’t be surprised if Sweezy gets some first-team reps tonight.

Defensive end Bruce Irvin

The first-round pick, whose speed has made him a menace in training camp, wasn’t as much of a factor as the Seahawks might have hoped in his preseason debut. Like any rookie, Irvin will undoubtedly need time to adjust to the game at the NFL level, and he and the Seahawks hope he can make more of an impact tonight.

Quarterback Matt Flynn

Oh yeah, the quarterbacks. Pete Carroll says the competition is still wide open, but a second straight start for Flynn seems to indicate he is leading the way. Flynn was solid but unspectacular last weekend, now will the Seahawks open up the playbook a bit and let him take more risks downfield?

Herald Writer John Boyle:

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