RENTON — Luke Willson was a backup tight end at Rice in 2012, catching just nine passes in an injury-plagued senior season, yet he was also one of the players about whom the Seahawks were most excited following the 2013 draft.
On Sunday in Arizona, Willson showed why the Seahawks were so high on him as a fifth-round pick last year, catching three passes for 139 yards and two touchdowns. The first of Willson’s catches against the Cardinals, an 80-yard touchdown, showed exactly what had the Seahawks so enamored with a player who had such modest numbers at a college hardly known for cranking out NFL talent.
Willson didn’t do anything fancy on that 80-yard touchdown catch, he simply got a step on an out-of-position safety, caught a perfectly-thrown pass from Russell Wilson, then out-ran Rashad Johnson the remaining 50 yards to the end zone. Tight ends generally don’t out-run safeties, but Willson, who ran a 4.51 second 40-yard dash at his pro day, has rare speed for a tight end.
“He had a breakout game receiving-wise,” offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell said. “I think it was fun to see him do that. I even told him on the sideline, ‘I finally believe you run a 4.5.’ First time we were able to see, he was able to run away from guys. It was awesome, we know he has that ability, but it was cool to see it in a play on the field or in game situations.”
Later in the game, Russell Wilson did what looked like a strange pre-snap happy dance when he realized Luke Willson was looking at man coverage from linebacker Larry Foote, so eager was the quarterback to get the snap. And on second-and-20, a down and distance that should favor the defense, Wilson hit Willson for a 39-yard gain. Later on that drive, Willson ran past an over-matched Foote again for a 20-yard touchdown.
The mismatch that a tight end with receiver speed can present was on full display in Arizona as Willson posted the highest receiving total by a Seahawk since 2010, and it provided a glimpse of what could be a big weapon in Seattle’s offense going forward.
Willson has always been fast for a big guy going back to his childhood he said, excelling in track as a 110-meter hurdler, although, he deadpans, “I mean, it was Canada.” Having that speed show up on gameday, however, isn’t always easy for a young player still finding his way, but after spending most of this season as a starter in place of an injured Zach Miller, Willson had his breakout game.
“He didn’t get a lot of attention in college,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. “That’s a great job by (general manager John Schneider) and his guys to find him as a prospect. And to work him out with the thought that he could be what he is now; this is the guy we hoped we could get.
“We hoped we sneak a guy through the draft and he’d come through and be a big hit for us. That’s rare speed for a tight end and it showed up. He has had a couple big plays over the years, but that was a big game for him to show how strong he is.”
Before Willson had played a game in Seattle, Schneider illustrated in an interview on 710 ESPN Seattle just how much the Seahawks wanted to acquire Willson. In every draft, there are players a team hopes to acquire. That player might not be the team’s highest-rated player, but it’s a player who they think can be a game-changer and/or who represents great value for their draft position.
In 2012, the Seahawks saw that in Bruce Irvin and Russell Wilson, and in 2013, Schneider said, “Luke was a guy in that same mold. We really would have been disappointed if we hadn’t been able to acquire him.”
Willson didn’t become an overnight sensation as a rookie, or even a regular threat in the passing game, but over the course of this season he has developed as a more complete tight end, making big strides as a blocker in tight end Zach Miller’s absence, and on Sunday, he showed just how dangerous of a big-play threat he could be going forward.
“To be able to have a mismatch on linebackers, and to be able to try and find that, then the defense has to decide, ‘OK, is the matchup with the linebacker the correct one to use, or do we need to start putting safeties on them?’” Bevell said. “Then that does different things for us — we have to look at the matchups and sometimes it uncovers some disguises and all those kinds of things that can open up when you have a factor that’s there in the middle.”
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org