Luke Willson has no problem letting his hair down.
Heck, his stringy, black locks touch the top of his shoulder pads.
But last week when the Seahawks’ second-year backup went home to LaSalle, Ontario, just across the Canadian border from Detroit, to see his parents Mike and Wilma and friends during Seattle’s bye, he couldn’t truly relax and let loose.
He knew then he was about to take Zach Miller’s job as the Seahawks’ starting tight end. He knew what the rest of us found out Monday, that Miller was having ankle surgery and will miss the next few games.
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The former Canadian hockey player, track and field and basketball team member and national junior baseball player by way of Rice University’s football team will have a starting job on the Super Bowl champions to himself beginning Monday when the Seahawks (2-1) play at Washington (1-3).
“I had known, not officially but kind of unofficially, talking to Zach,” Willson said after taking the first-team plays in practice Tuesday. “So I was home, taking care of myself, kind of mentally getting ready.
“It’s not really a vacation time … It wasn’t really a party week for me.”
Besides prepping for these next few weeks as Miller’s replacement, Willson also had family matters to finally tend to last week in Canada. While most bemoaned the Seahawks’ bye being the earliest possible in the league and setting up Seattle for 13 games without a week off to finish the regular season, Willson loved the timing.
“First time I’ve been home for my dad’s birthday in about seven years,” he said with a smile.
His father watched in person in New Jersey in February when Luke caught two passes in the Super Bowl. Luke’s mom was there, too, with his twin brothers Eric and Greg plus sister Rachel. They were in the lower-bowl seats of the Meadowlands’ end zone, with a Canadian flag.
Willson will get a chance to provide more thrills to his family Monday in Landover, Maryland. He’s been preparing for this shot since Seattle drafted him in the fifth round last year.
“When you’re the backup guy, you kind of always want to prepare for it,” Willson said. “I don’t really feel like I’m entering new territory.”
He’s not. This will be the second time in two Octobers Willson has filled in for an injured Miller. Willson started for him when the 2010 Pro Bowl tight end was out with an hamstring injury at Indianapolis on Oct. 6 — a year to the day of his start Monday against the Redskins. After a second consecutive start for Willson the following week against Tennessee, Miller returned.
Willson started five other games last season with Miller as Seattle began in two tight-end formations. The same thing happened in this season’s opener against Green Bay.
The rangy, 6-foot-5, 252-pound Willson said there’s no comparison between the Seahawks’ No. 82 last season to now.
The statistics so far this year don’t say so — one catch in three games, after 20 catches last regular season. But he says his improvement is, “Oh, big time — especially when it comes to recognizing defensive fronts and just being comfortable with technique, especially in the run game.
“I feel like it’s kind of like night and day.”
Rice didn’t ask or need him to block much in college. Coach Pete Carroll, offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell and the Seahawks sure have, though.
“I think from when I first got here I’ve made a lot of strides. For me, it’s one of those things where I’ve just got to run my feet after contact,” he said of blocking. “I feel like I’ve really improved and I’ve done a pretty good job.”
Willson said he has gained six pounds from last season. Carroll has noticed an increase in Willson’s strength as well as weight.
“Luke’s done a really good job,” Carroll said. “He’s going to obviously play a ton now. It’s really a great opportunity for him to step up. He’s improved in every area. He’s one of those young guys that has really just gotten a ton better since he’s been with us.
“He’s stronger and he’s faster than he was a year ago because of the offseason, so in every way he’s improved. This is a lot to ask of him, though. It’s the first time he’ll have this kind of duty. But it’s his turn to step up.”
The same is true for Cooper Helfet. Signed by the Seahawks as an undrafted free agent signed out of Duke in 2012, Helfet will be backing up Willson. Helfet returned from two weeks of knee pain to play in his first NFL game Sept. 21 against Denver. He spent last season on Seattle’s practice squad and was waived injured in 2012.
Garry Gilliam, a rookie free agent tackle who has spent all his football years except the last one as a tight end, including for three seasons at Penn State, got some plays at tight end in Tuesday’s practice. Carroll said the 306-pound Gilliam is a viable threat to catch passes while Miller misses a couple games. And tackle Alvin Bailey has been an extra tight end on short-yardage running plays in each of the Seahawks’ past two seasons.
Carroll said the team tried out numerous free-agent tight ends in the past week after Miller’s surgery but has decided to stick with what it has at the position. So it will mostly be Willson and Helfet while Miller recovers.
Willson appreciates the unseen, often-thankless work Helfet has put in to get this chance.
“I was just thinking, last year there were times where he would come out here and play every offensive scouting snap and every defensive scouting snap and he was very good at both. It was one of those things where he was always kind of a workhorse,” Willson said. “He came out here and gave 110 percent every day — and didn’t complain about it.
“Now it’s pretty cool, from being away, to see how far he’s come since I’ve been here.”