RENTON — When Lofa Tatupu went down with a concussion in the fourth quarter of Saturday’s win over New Orleans, fellow linebacker David Hawthorne didn’t have time to think about the fact that he had to change positions in the middle of a tightly contested playoff game.
No, Hawthorne did
n’t have time to think about moving from weakside to middle linebacker on the fly against one of the league’s best offenses; he had simpler things on his mind. He needed to change helmets.
“The first thing I did was grab my backup helmet because it’s got the microphone in it,” Hawthorne said, referring to the helmet that quarterbacks and middle linebackers wear which allow them to hear calls from coaches. “Then the coaches came over and told me what kind of calls they were calling, and at the state of the game we were in, what to be looking for and all of that. I just jumped right in and it was pretty easy.”
With Hawthorne taking over for Tatupu, the captain of Seattle’s defense, the Seahawks forced a punt three plays later to protect what was a four-point lead at the time. It was a series that not only kept Seattle in the lead of a game they would eventually go on to win 41-36, it also highlighted the depth and versatility the Seahawks have at linebacker.
“It was huge,” defensive coordinator Gus Bradley said. “I told (linebacker coach Ken) Norton, here Lofa went out at a critical time and Hawthorne comes in there and it was a critical third-down situation, and he knew what to do, and we got a big win on that series. That was huge.”
With Tatupu out, the Seahawks have the luxury of sliding Hawthorne, a natural middle linebacker, into that spot. Hawthorne started 11 games there last season with Tatupu injured and went on to lead the team in tackles. With Tatupu back and Leroy Hill absent in the offseason first because of a legal problem and later due to injury, the Seahawks decided to look at Hawthorne at weakside linebacker, a position he had never played.
Also important is the ability of Will Herring to play all three linebacker positions. Herring has played and started plenty of games in his four seasons in Seattle, so while Tatupu is certainly missed when he can’t play, the Seahawks are in a lot better shape than most teams when their starting middle linebacker can’t play.
“Both of those guys give us flexibility and confidence,” Bradley said. “When they went in there, when (Hawthorne) went in and played ‘mike,’ we didn’t miss a beat, so we’re fortunate that we trained him like that.”
And that flexibility could come into play this week with Tatupu still recovering from the concussion. Tatupu sat out practice Wednesday, but Carroll said he is optimistic that Tatupu will be able to play Sunday. Even so, with the league’s added emphasis on concussion awareness, there are no guarantees that Tatupu will make it back.
So for Hawthorne, that meant a Wednesday of practicing at middle linebacker, and a week of preparing to play both positions.
“Whatever I can do to help the team, I’m willing to do,” he said. “I wouldn’t ever want to put us in a situation where I’m not prepared to go in depending on Lofa’s situation, so I’ll be ready for both. “
It’s rather remarkable that Hawthorne has developed into a playmaker capable of starting at two positions considering his humble beginnings in the NFL. An undersized linebacker at 6-foot, 246 pounds, Hawthorne came into the league in 2008 as an undrafted free agent out of TCU. He made a reputation for himself as a hard-hitting special teams player as a rookie, earning the nickname, “Heater” but his breakout came last season when Tatupu was lost for the season with a torn pectoral muscle. Despite starting only 11 games, Hawthorne finished the season with a team-high 116 tackles.
This season, Hawthorne made a move to weakside linebacker to stay in the starting lineup, and after admittedly struggling with the transition early, he has improved as the season has progressed, and once again this season, Hawthorne led the team in tackles.
“It was a foreign language in the beginning, because I had never been outside, I had never been in space,” he said. “It was foreign for a while, but as the year progressed, I got more comfortable. I grasped the defense better, figured out my role and learned how teams try to attack my position. I feel good now.
“As the year goes on, you start seeing looks over again, you start playing runs over again, and it starts getting repetitive. Once that started happening for me, I knew how to defend certain things and the game got easier.”
Even as Hawthorne becomes more comfortable at weakside linebacker, he continues to end his preparation each night by studying Tatupu’s position. He has lost track of how many hours of extra study that has added up to this season, but the extra work paid off in a win last weekend, and could be vital again in Chicago on Sunday.
“Wherever I’m needed, that’s where I’m at,” he said. “And I won’t complain about that.”
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org. For more Seahawks coverage, check out the Seahawks blog at heraldnet.com/seahawksblog