By John Boyle Herald Columnist
RENTON — So, have you heard the one about the rookie who came to the Seahawks in the 2012 draft fighting an uphill battle, but defied the odds to quickly race up the depth chart?
No, not that rookie. We all know about Russell Wilson’s impressive preseason that has earned him the starting quarterback job that few thought he would win back when the Seahawks picked him in the third round.
No, the really crazy rookie-defies-the-odds story this preseason is that of J.R. Sweezy, the seventh-round pick who changed positions after the draft and has exceeded even the most optimistic projections to put himself in a battle for a starting job on the offensive line.
Wilson’s rapid assent up the depth chart has grabbed headlines, but Sweezy’s might be even more amazing.
When the Seahawks looked at Sweezy, a defensive tackle at North Carolina State — where, coincidentally, he played with Wilson before the quarterback transferred to Wisconsin — they saw potential. But general manager John Schneider didn’t look at Sweezy and see a defensive lineman; he saw a guard. So when offensive line coach Tom Cable went to work Sweezy out before the draft, he asked a defensive player, one who had not played offensive line since he was eight years old, how he felt about changing positions.
Cable liked what he saw of Sweezy in that workout, and just importantly, what he heard, and that was enough for the Seahawks to take a flier in the seventh round on a defensive lineman who they thought might just be able to make a successful transition to the other side of the ball.
“He answered the question right,” Cable said. “When I asked, ‘I’m here to work you as an offensive lineman, not a defensive lineman, are you all right with that?’ His answer was, ‘Yeah, I’ll do whatever it takes.’ That’s the right answer. It’s not, ‘Well, does this mean I don’t get to play D-line?’ You don’t want to hear that crap. You just want to know, ‘Hey, do you want to go for this or not?’ And right from the beginning, he did, and that made it easy.”
Sweezy’s answer to Cable’s question, as well as his raw ability, made it easy to draft him. Making a significant position switch at the NFL level is anything but easy. The best case scenario for Sweezy figured to be that he would show enough in training camp to merit a spot on the practice squad, then spend the year learning the nuances of offensive-line play with the hopes that somewhere down the road he could contribute.
Instead, Sweezy improved at a staggering rate to the point that, with John Moffitt out with an elbow injury, he found himself starting at right guard the past two preseason games.
“I couldn’t be more pleased with J.R.,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. “He is so far ahead of expectations that we can’t even describe it at this point. “He’s started a couple of games and played really well in both of the ones that he’s started.
“… It’s just a cool illustration of the work that John (Schneider) does. John says, ‘We have a guy we want to look at.’ So we sent Cable out to go work him out. John thought he was going to see really good stuff because he had all of the measurements. He knew about his background and the nature of J.R. is that he’s a very, very tough kid. Cable worked him out and just came back raving about him. He was saying how good he could be if it ever came together.”
So yes, the Seahawks saw potential in moving Sweezy to guard, it’s just that no one though it could come together so quickly. And that most definitely includes Sweezy himself, who admitted he was pretty much lost when he first started playing guard in the spring during minicamps and organized team activities.
“Every OTA, I was running around like a chicken with my head cut off,” he said. “I didn’t know what was going on. I was running down field on passes, I just didn’t understand it, but through the coaching and the guys, I’m getting it.”
That lost feeling didn’t last long, and in a way, Sweezy’s inexperience has contributed to his early success.
Some players come from college programs that use vastly different systems, or they play a position long enough that they think they know what they’re doing and may not be as receptive to coaching. But because Sweezy’s experience on the O-line is limited to Pee Wee football, he was a blank canvas for Cable.
“There are no bad habits,” Cable said. “You have to tell him, ‘This is why you’re pass-setting, this is why you’re in this combination, this is what the defense is lined up in, this is what they’re trying to do.’ When he understands what’s going on that way, then he’s building a set of habits. So, we’re pretty lucky that way.”
Sweezy’s strong play made veteran Deuce Lutui expendable, so the Seahawks cut Lutui on Sunday. And Sweezy’s quick development has not only all but assured him of a roster, but he also could challenge Moffitt for the starting job even when Moffitt is again fully healthy.
Whether or not Sweezy is a starter this year, what he already has accomplished makes him one of the more remarkable stories in Seahawks training camp or any other around the NFL.
“I didn’t really have expectations,” he said. “I just went into it and said, ‘I’m going to go 100 miles-per-hour and do whatever they tell me to do,’ and I guess they like it, so I’m going to keep doing it.”
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org.