RENTON, Wash. – The question asked of Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll had nothing to do with how well Bobby Wagner has played during the first quarter of his rookie season.
Carroll just made it a point to recognize how well the middle linebacker is doing making the adjustment from college to the NFL.
“He is really playing good football. He’s doing a terrific job handling things,” Carroll said Wednesday. “He’s shown up with big hits, he’s covering well. He’s chasing the football. You can see the speed he has a number of times. We don’t have anything we can’t do right now.”
Through four games, Wagner is the Seahawks’ third-leading tackler behind K.J. Wright and Kam Chancellor. He’s coming off a season-best seven solo tackles last week against St. Louis, but what has impressed coaches and his teammates is Wagner’s savvy in getting the Seahawks’ defense in the right spots and making the right calls.
He’s the first rookie to start at middle linebacker for Seattle since Lofa Tatupu in 2005 and Wagner’s task this week could be his most difficult so far: keeping an eye on Carolina’s Cam Newton.
“You have to make sure you get them lined up fast because they’re going to get on the ball quick,” Wagner said. “They’re going to try and trick you with a lot of tricky formations, unbalances, motion, so you’ve got to make sure you’re on your ‘A’ game.”
When Seattle drafted Wagner in the second round of April’s draft, the Seahawks were hopeful that playing his college ball at Utah State wouldn’t be a limitation and that he could quickly step in and take over the starting job at middle linebacker. What Seattle wanted was an increase in speed without losing any of the physicality that former linebacker David Hawthorne brought to the position.
Wagner has done exactly what Seattle wanted, while also picking up aspects of the Seahawks defense quicker than expected. Seattle made sure there was experience on either side of Wagner with Leroy Hill and K.J. Wright joining him in Seattle’s linebacker corps, but it’s Wagner making all the calls.
“I’m a lot more comfortable, just because I’ve done it for four games. I’ve got confidence and the players have backed me up,” Wagner said. “It’s gone pretty good. I thought it would go pretty well. The faster I learned the defense the faster I could start to make plays.”
Perhaps no Seattle defensive player is more prepared to face Newton and the Panthers’ offense than Wagner. Playing at Utah State in the Western Athletic Conference, Wagner regularly saw a number of hybrid offensive systems, including the zone-read offense Carolina uses.
Wagner also played against Auburn, albeit a season after Newton led the Tigers to the national title and won the Heisman Trophy. Utah State opened the 2011 season at Auburn and while the plays were different without Newton calling the shots, the principles were similar.
While it’s not exact, that experience gives Wagner and the Seahawks some idea of what to expect.
“It’s going to be fun. I wanted to play him at Auburn and didn’t get a chance,” Wagner said. “I get my chance now.”