Rookie Learning the Ropes

SEATTLE - It's not an uncommon rite of passage for an older, more experienced player to take a newbie under their wing. So when junior linebacker Donald Butler said he wanted to talk with new teammate Kurt Mangum recently, the frosh from the Phoenix area didn't blink an eye. He also didn't realize he was picking up the check.

"Donald said he wanted to talk to me a little bit," Mangum told "So we went to get something to eat, and when we got to the register he gave me that look. I said, 'Ah, man!' But it's all good.

"I've bought a dinner or two since I've been here. I didn't know it until I bought 'em. But that's just rookie stuff."

Mangum figures the lesson cost him some chicken fingers, a drink and some ice cream. "I had to pay for a full-course meal," he said with a laugh. But it's a small price to pay when it comes to picking up any sort of edge, any advantage he can use to get that much closer to playing time this fall.

The Washington linebacking corps is one that's expected to play much better than they did a year ago - playing in the middle of a defense that gave up nearly 32 points per game, ninth-best in the Pac-10 and 92nd in the country.

"We were a very young group a year ago, and I think our inexperience showed," Washington Linebackers Coach Chris Tormey said. "They do understand the speed of the game much better now than they did a year ago. That's what you take the most from game experience.

"You are seeing a group of players - because of experience and scheme - that are able to play faster. And when you can play faster, you can be more physical, less tentative."

And those younger players include Butler - who actually sat out five games in 2007 due to a knee injury - and Mason Foster, who ended up starting four games as a true freshman.

"Playing last year and getting the opportunity to experience things first-hand, things come a lot easier now," Foster said. "The terminology is a lot easier to handle. Coach (Tormey) can come here and if he tells me to spill here, I know what he's talking about. Sometimes last year he'd come up with things and I didn't know what he was talking about."

"He's done a nice job," Tormey said of Foster. "He's certainly gotten better. He was primarily a nickel back for us last year, so he's had to get accustomed to playing the run more, and he's gotten better every day as a result."

"Things are slowing down now," added Foster. And that's something Mangum hopes comes sooner, rather than later.

"It's a different world," Mangum said. "It's a different level of playing. It take a lot to adapt to it, and mostly it's because the speed of the game is much different and learning the system too. Once I'm getting the system down, the game slows down for me.

"Taking on blockers was a lot different in high school. Then, I just ran on people and hit them with my head and my shoulders, but that's how you get hurt here. So you have to get your hands into it a lot more here."

Tormey is noticing the same things in Mangum that he sees with most young players. "He (Mangum) is doing fine," Tormey said. Technically, he's still a senior in high school. The learning curve is steep, but he's doing very well with it."

Another one of those youngsters that has taken a big jump forward is Joshua Gage. The redshirt junior from Huntington Beach, Calif. came to Washington as a walk-on and has since earned a scholarship. He played in all 13 games in 2007, mostly on special teams, but he could be a player that emerges from the pack and earns some quality playing time.

"He impressed us early on," Tormey said of Gage. "As a true freshman he showed that he could understand concepts, especially in zone coverages. He has been a backup in our nickel scheme for the last couple of years. Last year he got a fair amount of playing experience. He has good instincts and is disciplined in terms of how he reads his keys and as a result he reacts well to both the run and the pass."

And then you add linebacker stalwarts like 2007 leading tackler E.J. Savannah, Trenton Tuiasosopo and special teams phenom Chris Stevens - as well as players like Matt Houston and Cort Dennison looking to have a breakout season in 2008 - and you can see how the competition across the board should not only make the linebacking corps better, but it should spill over to the defense as a whole.

And if you add to it the excitement and enthusiasm being generated by the arrival of new Defensive Coordinator Ed Donatell, and you can see why the defense feels there should be room for optimism.

"I just feel there's a sense of urgency," Foster said. "It's a lot of fun. You can see it in people's eyes. Everybody's hungry and everybody wants to win. We're all on the same page."

"We're going to try and find out what they can do, what they do best - and take advantage of those abilities, those strengths," Tormey added.

So Mangum's dilemma is clear. He's got a lot to overcome if he plans on playing his first year at Montlake. And that means overachieving - not just on the field (and doing all the things rookies do, like calling out the signal to the whole sideline before a play), but also getting a quick handle on all his off-the-field responsibilities; meetings, classes, workouts, etc...

"At this level, almost everybody is fast and strong," he said. "But who has their stuff down, who knows the system - they are the ones that get on the field. So I'm just staying focused and I'm learning the playbook."

Tormey believes Mangum has a chance to be a good one. "He's athletic and tough and he's picking things up well so far,"

Mangum hopes the next thing he picks up is a fumbled football, not a lunch tab. Top Stories