RENTON — The Seahawks’ thinnest position all summer is on its way to getting regular-season thick — just in time for the NFL opener against Green Bay at CenturyLink Field in two weeks.
The Seattle linebacking unit is getting healthier by the day. The latest progress for the core of a thudding defense: Super Bowl Most Valuable Player Malcolm Smith participated Monday in position drills and some group work. It was his first practice since surgery in the spring to remove loose parts in his ankle.
“It’s a great deal to get him back,” coach Pete Carroll said following the warm, two-hour workout on the fields at the Virginia Mason Athletic Center. “It’s been a long offseason for him — a highlighted offseason (the MVP’s notoriety, his trip to Disney World, etc.), but it’s still been hard on him getting right.”
Carroll drafted Smith in the seventh round in 2011, after he had recruited and then signed him to USC out of Northridge, California. So he knows quite well what he’s getting with Smith back on the outside edge of the Seahawks defense.
“He’s got great versatility,” Carroll said. “We totally trust him. He’s been with us forever, since like fourth grade it seems. He’s a real fixture in our defense.”
Korey Toomer, Seattle’s fifth-round draft pick in 2012, also returned to practice. He needs to in order to make a late push for a roster spot. Toomer had been on Seattle’s preseason physically unable to perform list since a hamstring injury; coming off the preseason PUP list means he can’t go on it to begin the regular season. So Toomer will either make the team, be released or go on injured reserve.
The team expects Smith and Toomer to do more on Tuesday than they did on Monday, and so on through this practice week. It ends Thursday before Friday’s third exhibition game against Chicago at CenturyLink Field.
Carroll also said pass-rushing outside linebacker Bruce Irvin might come off the preseason PUP list and practice within a week or two. Irvin, who had eight sacks as a rookie in 2012 and two in 12 regular-season and three postseason games last season, had hip surgery in May. He also needs to get back on the field sooner rather than later, given how deep this unit is becoming again.
“(Irvin’s) doing great. He’s running and changing directions (Monday) for the first time,” Carroll said. “He really feels confident. He doesn’t feel like he feels anything, at all.”
The coach said that barring setbacks the plan is for Irvin to get “some work after the Raider game (the final exhibition on Aug. 28) — and maybe before that.” Add in the fact K.J. Wright has been all over the field in practices, plus starting middle linebacker Bobby Wagner (hamstring) could return next week as well, and the Seahawks are getting back to full strength at the opportune time.
All these injuries for the Seahawks this spring and summer at linebacker have spawned two positives. Two revelations, really:
• Undrafted rookie Brock Coyle has been anchoring the first team for weeks and started both exhibition games. The former captain of the Big Sky Conference’s Montana Grizzlies keeps drawing Carroll’s raves for how he’s handled being an NFL middle linebacker and for his consistent improvement.
Carroll sat down with Coyle following the first exhibition game two weeks ago at Denver. He explained how the rookie needed to perfect the nuances of his position, such as better balance while tackling and better footwork while dropping into pass coverage. The result: Coyle impressed the head man specifically in those two areas last week against San Diego.
Carroll said Monday the Super Bowl champions don’t dwell on — or even care about — the fact an undrafted rookie from the Football Championship Subdivision is their starting middle linebacker.
“It’s not even a big deal to us right now. He’s done it, so he’s kind of gotten through that,” Carroll said. “I’m not worried about him one bit. If he had to play he could play.”
Coyle, it seems, could win a roster spot he might not have gotten the opportunity to win had Wagner not been out.
• Mike Morgan, a free agent signee in 2011 out of USC and a backup linebacker and special-teamer in all 16 games last regular season, has been impressive this month filling in for Smith.
Plus, Seattle didn’t draft rookie Kevin Pierre-Louis in the fourth round in May out of Boston College to cut him this month. Pierre-Louis is playing catch-up, though, after missing the a week or so into early August with an oblique-muscle injury.
“It’s awesome, man. Just having the depth that we have right now, it’s probably the best we’ve had since I’ve been here,” Morgan said. “So it’s just fun to get out there and just play with all those guys.”
Carroll appreciates what Morgan, Coyle and Wright have done all summer — appreciation that is likely to show itself on Aug. 30 when the final round of roster cuts down to the 53-man regular-season roster are due.
“We are really excited about these guys,” Carroll said. “It’s been thin all throughout the camp, and Mike Morgan and Brock and K.J., they have really held it together for us. It’s really fun to see these guys get back.
“Not only do they do well on scrimmage plays, they are fantastic additions to special teams, as well. We are going to get more experienced real quick here as they return.”
With many outside the team worried about the risk of having All-Pro safety Earl Thomas as the primary punt returner, Carroll was asked whether rookie second-round pick Paul Richardson — whose 4.40 seconds in the 40-yard dash was the third-fastest at this winter’s NFL combine among wide receivers — might be an option as a punt returner. “We’re thinking of him more as a kickoff returner. He’s working there,” the coach said. “He’s in the mix. He could play in the game at kick returner right now.” Richardson never returned kickoffs in college at Colorado. ... DE O’Brien Schofield, unblockable for much of last week’s exhibition game, watched Monday’s scrimmaging from the sidelines wearing a team camp. Carroll said Schofield, who is battling Benson Mayowa for a job, is “OK, not hurt. We just thought it would be good for him to rest on his knee and so he took a day off.” ... Carroll said he got word over the weekend from the NFL that the illegal-contact foul Friday against the Chargers on cornerback Tharold Simon seconds before his end-zone interception and 103-yard return for what would have been a touchdown “shouldn’t have been called.” ... Asked about QB Terrelle Pryor, Carroll said: “I like the way he throws the ball. Big arm. He’s a terrific downfield thrower.”