For Tatupu, "Almost" Isn't Good Enough

In his rookie year, Lofa Tatupu's achievements straddled the stratospheric. Called a "reach" in the second round by almost every draft expert covering April's carnage, he ignored the pundits and took his USC pro-style training to Kirkland. In his first minicamp, he was barking plays and noticing assignments, giving a preview of the supernatural analytical ability he possessed.

Veterans were impressed, and Tatupu was on his way. He racked up 104 tackles (85 solo), four sacks and three interceptions. More importantly, he became the face of an iron-tough, character-filled defense which helped take the Seahawks to new heights. Through that first season, there were accomplishments in bunches and bushels which would have marked the career of any veteran, but for Tatupu, there is more in store.

Although he very nearly won the Defensive Rookie of the Year award (and many believe he should have, even over San Diego’s Shawne Merriman) and almost carried home a Lombardi Trophy (another near-miss not without controversy), “almost” is not an acceptable word in Lofa Tatupu’s vocabulary. We discovered this in his inaugural campaign, when he flushed out running backs, saw inside the minds of veteran quarterbacks and won collision after collision between the lines in ways that would make any veteran linebacker proud to see.

Now, as his second training camp begins, new vernacular creeps in: Leader. Coaching. Progression. As natural a field general as any player in the league, Tatupu was asked about his own capacity for leadership, and how much he’s been asked to assume that role. “I’d like to be considered as one of the leaders, but we have 11 leaders out there, and you can never have enough,” Tatupu said. “We are all leading and taking after each other and leading by example. It’s fun out there and we’re coming together.”

“According to Bryce Fisher, I am still a rookie for three games - he let me know that.”

For Tatupu, it’s about assignment-correct football, and he had several thoughts on how he’d like his own game, and the ability of Seattle’s defense, to improve in 2006. “We have to put everything together. You can’t just be good in a couple of categories,” he said. “John Marshall, Ray Rhodes and the defensive staff; they set the bar high. We proved a lot last year, but not nearly enough. We still have to complement the offense the best we can. We’re trying to be a defense to be reckoned with and step our game up.”

In his mind, that starts with consistency, The Seahawks led the NFL in sacks with 50, but quarterback pressure appeared to be a “feast-or-famine” proposition at times. “As a defense we excelled against the run, I think we were in the top five for that and red zone. Teams still seem to be getting unnecessary yards on us so we cut that down and we could be in the top ten defenses, maybe even the top five. We’re looking forward to that as a team. Myself, I am hoping I get a couple more blitzes called.”

One thing Tatupu’s very happy about is the starting linebacker corps – in 2006, he’ll have talent on his left and right like never before. Leroy Hill, another member of Seattle’s class of 2005, also excelled in his rookie year. And Tim Ruskell went out and got the Seahawks the best present imaginable – the services of former San Francisco linebacker Julian Peterson. Slowed by a 2004 Achilles’ injury last season, Peterson is still one of the most formidable athletes in the league.

“(Peterson) is one of those guys you just cut loose and let go, him and Leroy. It’s not to say they don’t think when they’re out there; they just can make up for any mistake with their natural talent. I try to stay ahead of he game so I don’t have to rely on that.”

What does Peterson bring to the table from a physical perspective? “He has a reach that has to be about seven feet long; he has some arms on him. He is quick and he has been around the game and he knows they’re going to attack him. That is something that coach Zerick Rollins has Leroy and me preparing for. He has us looking at tape at how they attack us, whether it is divisional opponents or non-conference, and you can see the certain ways, whether they’re trying to slow us down by taking our legs or trying to get a body on us. With the preparation we have put forth, hopefully we will succeed this year.

“He’s going to be in a three-point stance on some third downs, so he can be all over the place. In his past he has played safety too. There is no limit to what he can do and we’re going to utilize that.”

Tatupu also talked about his mentor, defensive coordinator (and former linebackers coach) John Marshall, who became the official main man after brilliantly replacing Ray Rhodes, who suffered a mild stroke before the 2005 season began. Rhodes is still very much in the picture as a consultant, and Tatupu believes that he and his teammates will benefit from it all. “Ray Rhodes and John Marshall - they have the same style as far as calling defense. When they get to know how we attack…some people just have a knack for getting to the quarterback. Leroy (Hill) played in about nine games and had about seven and a half sacks. So what do you do? You send him. I like to sit back and look forward to picking off passes, that is something I excel in and hopefully something I can do more of.”

Read and react – it is part of the nature of every great middle linebacker. He will satisfy his taste for blood, but must also be a thinking man's carnivore. In the best defenses, there’s no room for reckless energy drains. Peterson can help Tatupu with technique as well. “The savvy of being out there and knowing the game in and out and helping us out, whether on reads or hand technique, he is really good at getting off of blocks and flipping them. He doesn’t allow blockers get into his chest, so that is something I am looking forward to taking from him from this camp.”

Now, Tatupu can look with pride on his own rookie season, and counsel the new kids joining the defense. Talented newcomers like cornerback Kelly Jennings, who agreed to terms with the team today. “He looked pretty sharp in the first camp and he hasn’t missed too much”, Tatupu said. "I am looking forward to working with him. He has phenomenal talent, and unbelievable speed and I’m looking forward to seeing him.”

A prized rookie from a big program? Tatupu knows the drill. He sees the world through veteran eyes now, and fans can only wonder what they’ll see as a result of his increased acumen. If he could do all those things he did while still learning the pro game, what more can he accomplish?

A modest professional, Tatupu might say what he said about today’s weather: "I don’t want to jinx anything, so I am going to leave it at that.”

Until the season begins…and further steps forward are taken in one marvelous career.


Doug Farrar is the Editor-in-Chief of Seahawks.NET. Feel free to e-mail him here.


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