Seahawks’ Smith makes the most of every chance

RENTON — It’s been an interesting season for Seattle Seahawks linebacker Malcolm Smith.

In his third NFL season, Smith has gone from starter to backup to starter to backup, and now, once again, he’ll start for Seattle on Sunday. For somebody who didn’t necessarily pencil in as a starter coming into the year, Smith has had a huge role this season, serving as a starting linebacker in five of 13 games so far.

Now with K.J. Wright out with a fractured foot, the former seventh-round pick figures to start at weakside linebacker for the rest of the regular season and perhaps beyond depending on Wright’s recovery.

When last year’s starting weakside linebacker, Leroy Hill, was not re-signed, a door seemed to open for Smith, but that changed when Seattle decided to move Bruce Irvin from defensive end to linebacker. Irvin was suspended for four games to start the season, however, so Smith was the starting strongside linebacker in three of the first four games — he missed a game with a hamstring injury. Then when middle linebacker Bobby Wagner missed two games with an ankle injury, Wright moved from weakside linebacker to the middle with Smith coming in to play the weakside spot.

Smith has played very well whenever he has gotten a chance this year, particularly on the weakside, his more natural spot, yet he still has twice this year ended up the odd man out when the Seahawks are at full strength. Smith would obviously prefer to be starting, but he has handled his ever-changing role well.

“You’ve just got to know you’re important, because if you make a mistake it can cost the team the game,” he said. “You don’t want to be in that position. So I just try to focus on doing my job well and improving in other ways when you get your opportunities in practice.”

And for Smith, playing-time uncertainty is a better option than what he has faced before in his career. Smith wasn’t invited to the NFL Scouting Combine in 2011, despite uncommon speed for a linebacker and a productive career at USC, a big blow to his NFL dreams.

He then lasted until the final round of the draft, largely because he was viewed as undersized and seen as a health risk. Near the end of his sophomore season at USC, Smith started having trouble keeping food down, and ended up losing nearly 30 pounds with what was eventually diagnosed as achalasia, a rare esophagus disorder. Surgery and a special diet allow Smith to manage it and maintain his playing weight despite the physical demands of professional football.

“It’s something I deal with every day,” he said. “It’s just a part of my life. Everybody has things they go through. I just kind of deal with it. … I eat differently. It takes a lot of time to eat. Just monitoring my intake and trying to pay attention to what I’m eating a little more than others might.”

So it should come as no surprise that a little bit of uncertainty hasn’t done much to derail a promising season for Smith.

“He’s been a really steady part of our team and whenever we’ve called on him the highlighted playing time, he’s always played well,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. “He’s given us play at two linebacker spots and in nickel (defense), he’s been a core special teams guy throughout. I don’t know if he’s exceeded expectations of seventh-round pick, but we certainly have seen him rise up and really be a crucial member of our football time for quite a while now.

“So when he steps in, it just doesn’t affect our thinking in any way. We can do everything that we want to do, he has great experience in the system and he can do a lot of stuff because he’s a good blitz guy as well as a coverage guy.”

Injury update

Percy Harvin continues to be held out of practice with an injured hip, and it’s still unclear when he’ll return to action.

“It’s week to week, we’re trying to figure this thing out, then when he gets on the practice field, then it’s truly day to day and we’ll see how he responds,” Carroll said. “As of today, he won’t be going. That means he’s running in his rehab work, then we have to see if he can tolerate it and come back and give us a couple days of work. We’ll have to make sure he’s right, so we’re going to take our time. I know it seems like, ‘How can you take you’re time when you’re this close to the end of the season?’ But we still have to do that to take care of him.”

K.J. Wright had surgery on his foot Wednesday, but Carroll had no update on a timetable fore the linebacker’s return. Max Unger was also held out of practice with a pectoral injury, but Carroll said the center will likely return to practice Thursday or Friday and is expected to play Sunday. Cornerback Brandon Browner is also not yet able to practice because of a groin injury, and while there is still no resolution on Browner’s appeal of a suspension, Carroll indicated the cornerback won’t be ready this week from a health standpoint anyway. A handful of other players were held out of Wednesday’s practice, though Carroll did not mention their injuries after Sunday’s game or in his Monday and Wednesday press conference: Zach Miller (ribs), Marshawn Lynch (shoulder), Richard Sherman (foot), LB Mike Morgan (knee), Doug Baldwin (neck), and Chris Clemons (not injury related).

Johnson to IR; Cox re-signed

The Seahawks placed safety Jeron Johnson on injured reserve following a hamstring injury suffered in Sunday’s game. In addition to serving as a backup to Kam Chancellor, Johnson was also a key special teams contributor. To fill the open roster spot, the Seahawks signed cornerback Perrish Cox, a player they employed two weeks ago for roughly 24 hours. The Seahawks initially signed Cox after Walter Thurmond was suspended, but because they wanted to activate DeShawn Shead of the practice squad, and because there was uncertainty about Brandon Browner’s suspension, they released Cox a day after signing him to add Shead to the roster.

Cox said there were no hard feelings about his very brief stint, noting the team had discussed with him the unusual circumstances—Cox didn’t specifically name Browner, but Carroll said uncertainty about Browner was the reason for the move when asked about it last month.

“They talked to me before they did it, and gave me a valid reason,” said Cox, who played for the 49ers before being released in November. “… I was cool with it.”

And as an added bonus, the timing of the two moves allowed Cox to spend Thanksgiving at home with family in Waco, Texas.

With a Cox replacing Johnson on the roster, Shead, a versatile defensive back, will now focus on playing safety rather than cornerback, which is where he had been playing.

Herald Writer John Boyle:

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