If Russell Wilson had known the Seahawks center this season was going to be a former undrafted college defensive lineman from the Mid-American Conference, the quarterback may have taken out a larger insurance policy this spring.
Yet 21/2 weeks before the opener, that’s what Seattle has at center. It enters the third preseason game Saturday at San Diego with Drew Nowak as Wilson’s center and protection caller. Nowak is replacing Max Unger, the two-time Pro Bowler the Seahawks had to trade to New Orleans to acquire star tight end Jimmy Graham in March.
Yes it is an unexpected, if not odd, couple. The Seahawks’ highest-paid player — Wilson has a new average pay of $21.9 million per year coming on an extension he signed this month — is partnering with their lowest-paid guy on every call before every snap.
Drew Nowak’s scheduled base salary of $435,000 is the league minimum this year for players on active rosters.
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Wait … Drew Who?
“Drew’s come a long way,” Seattle coach Pete Carroll said of this summer’s surprise, the latest experiment line coach Tom Cable is making into a starter. “Another guy who’s come from the other side of the ball, just last year.
“The indications are really good. He’s really strong and shown good smarts.”
Nowak was born in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and grew up in nearby De Pere. He has vivid memories of playing football for De Pere High School on Friday nights then chopping wood outside in the chill of Wisconsin’s autumn hours early on Saturday mornings.
All this spring and summer it appeared Lemuel Jeanpierre, Unger’s backup the previous five seasons, was the obvious heir in the middle. That was if the Seahawks didn’t sign a veteran center to compete with him. Seattle brought the 28-year-old Jeanpierre back for this season on a one-year, $825,000 contract.
But nothing is obvious with Seattle’s offensive line right now.
Jeanpierre started the preseason opener two weeks ago. That was the game in which Denver trucked around and through Seattle’s blockers for seven sacks, including two of Wilson on as many drives, with a lost fumble at the Seahawks’ 11-yard line.
Jeanpierre said communication issues caused the line to play too slowly that night. That communication starts and largely ends with the center.
Cable started four centers last season when Unger was hurt. He had seen enough in that first preseason game of Jeanpierre starting with Alvin Bailey at left guard and Justin Britt at right tackle.
Last week in practice and in the exhibition game at Kansas City, Nowak started at center for the first time. Britt, the starting right tackle all last season as a rookie, made his debut at left guard. Garry Gilliam, the college tight end at Penn State until January 2014, who had been Russell Okung’s backup at left tackle, started his first game at right tackle. Okung is still the left tackle and J.R. Sweezy, another college defensive tackle Cable converted to offense, is still starting at right guard.
Cable said that’s going to be the lineup again Saturday at San Diego, adding “we’re getting close” to settling on a starting five and that “we like where it’s headed.”
Carroll said Monday he didn’t anticipate many more changes, either, though he left open the competitions at center and right tackle. Seattle hosted free-agent guard Evan Mathis for a physical exam on Saturday before he signed with Denver on Tuesday. Free agent Samson Satele, formerly Oakland’s starting center, reportedly tried out for the Seahawks.
For now, though, it’s Nowak starting at center. The only other time he’s ever played the position was for a few months back at De Pere High, in the same town where Seahawks general manager John Schneider went to high school.
“Only my senior year,” Nowak said, laughing. “I started at center my senior year of high school. And that’s it.
“I played D-line my whole college career.”
That was as a four-year letterman at Western Michigan. The 6-foot-3, 292-pound Nowak was the MAC defensive player of the year in 2011 as a senior after producing 81/2 sacks and 91 tackles, whopping totals for a defensive tackle.
That experience is paying off for him now.
“I feel like I can see what the defense — the D-line, especially — what they are trying to do based on alignments,” he said. “Because I’ve had that mindset before I can tell what they are trying to do, which does help me in my pass sets, in my run fits. That’s definitely a positive with having been on the other side of the ball.
“It’s been an exciting change. I feel like I’ve been making some pretty solid progress. Coach Cable’s been doing a really great job with teaching, in the classroom and on the field. I feel like every day it’s getting better.”
The coaches have been impressed with how Nowak doesn’t get moved off his spot and how quickly he’s picked up the pre-snap calls and effectively delivered them.
Yet there’s always room to grow there, even for a five-year veteran.
“A lot of it’s pre-snap,” he said. “You’ve really got to know the formation, the play call, the defense, everything. You’ve got to be able to see it all really quick. Make the calls, get set. Know the snap count. It’s a lot of things that you’ve got to process — and then you’ve got to go play.
“So I feel like the pre-snap reads, everything before you snap the ball, you have to speed up. And that’s the hardest part. I feel like the more reps I get the better I feel.”
Now Jeanpierre is in the team-first, yet potentially awkward, spot of helping a competitor who seems to be taking his job.
“I believe it is a competition, (but) I love Lem. He is a great guy,” Nowak said. “He is very intelligent. He teaches me a lot, you know. I am always asking him questions.
“I think it’s a going to be a tough battle the rest of camp, for sure. Who knows? We’ll see how it goes.”
SATURDAY: Exhibition, Seattle at San Diego, 5 p.m., Ch. 7, 710-AM, 97.3-FM