Seattle Seahawks

Seahawks’ Thomas Rawls plows way into being Marshawn Lynch’s unlikely sub

Seahawks running back Thomas Rawls picks up 17 yards on a fourth-quarter run Sunday against the Bears. Rawls rushed for 104 yards on 16 carries in the victory.
Seahawks running back Thomas Rawls picks up 17 yards on a fourth-quarter run Sunday against the Bears. Rawls rushed for 104 yards on 16 carries in the victory. The Seattle Times

Seven minutes remained before the first Seahawks were due on the practice field for special-teams drills. It was 22 minutes before full practice was starting.

Some players were getting into uniform. A few were talking to writers at their lockers. Some veterans were relaxing at their spots, listening to slow R&B like it was Friday night in the living room instead of Thursday at work.

None were like Thomas Rawls.

The undrafted rookie was standing in front of his locker in full uniform. He had his shoulder pads on. His blue practice jersey with No. 34 was covering them. His blue helmet was secured over his head. When he answered a reporter’s question his words got muffled as they passed through his unbuckled chinstrap.

That’s how ready Rawls is to replace Marshawn Lynch as the Seahawks’ lead back Monday night against the Detroit Lions, if need be.

“I’ve always had confidence. Never lacked it. I just feel like I can go out there and compete,” the 22-year-old Michigan native said.

“I think I’m just a rookie on paper. I mean, at the end of the day I put on pads just like the veteran guys.”

Just a lot earlier than they do.

With Lynch possibly missing just his second game in six seasons with Seattle because of a hamstring injury, Rawls’ initiative and confidence could be paying off — far more than he or anyone could have imagined last fall when his Central Michigan college team suspended him two different times. Or in May, when no NFL took him among the 256 players drafted.

Rawls doesn’t do daunted.

He blew through the Bears for 104 yards on 16 carries last weekend, when Lynch missed the first 12 minutes then final two quarters of Seattle’s shutout of Chicago. That made Rawls the latest in coach Pete Carroll’s and general manager John Schneider’s remarkable string of starters and key contributors no one in the league bothered to draft.

From top two wide receivers Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse through starting center Drew Nowak, right tackle Garry Gilliam and fullback Derrick Coleman to 100-yard Super Bowl receiver and touchdown maker Chris Matthews, 44 percent of the Seahawks’ 53-man roster wasn’t drafted into the league.

When Carroll saw scouting tapes this spring of Rawls he saw a 5-foot-9, 215-pound bruiser running like Lynch does, hitting would-be tacklers as much as he got hit. That was true in 2014 at Central Michigan and, in far fewer opportunities three years before that, at Michigan.

“Coach was kind of a big champion for Thomas,” Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell said. “He really liked him, and again it was the style that he portrayed on tape. You got to see the toughness, you got to see the physical-ness. You could see him when he had the decision — he could make a guy miss — but there’s times it’s just like, ‘OK, I’m running that guy over’ and (he) exerted his will on the opponent.

“So I think that was what coach kind of latched on to. Really liked that style, felt like that’s something that could bring something unique to our team and continue with our philosophy.”

Carroll calls Rawls “a real head-knocker.”

“I loved the way he finished plays,” the coach said. “He almost was a heat-seeking missile to find guys that were after him. That demonstrated to me a nature about him that I thought was unique, and I liked it more than anybody I saw in the draft.

“He was my favorite guy, for being the aggressive tough guy and running at people, because you can’t make everyone miss in this league. You’re going to get in to those situations, you’re going to have to face guys up. And he’s got a way about him.”

Carroll was still smiling days later over Rawls bowling through Bears last weekend, dragging defenders he didn’t run over.

“That’s built into him. I really like that,” Carroll said. “I think we always appreciate the tough running style Marshawn has given us for years, so Thomas fits that mold a little bit.”

That’s why the coaches say whether Lynch plays or not against the Lions they aren’t changing the run-first, run-with-power philosophy that got Seattle to the last two Super Bowls.

“I’ve been real excited to see what he would be like when he finally got on the field. To see if he would be aggressive and tough like we’d seen. And he showed that,” Carroll said of Rawls. “Without the opportunity you wouldn’t know to this extent. The limited amount of carries he had in preseason wasn’t enough. I’d hoped that we would know more, so we just kind of kept with the thought.

“When we got the chance, we threw him out there and he came through for us. He’s just getting started, too. … He’ll improve. He’ll be more effective, I think, as we continue to let him get the ball.”

He wasn’t getting much more than in trouble during his last season of college football. That may have kept him available to Seattle at low risk and low cost as Schneider and the Seahawks rightly assessed no one would draft him.

He was a hyped, all-state back in high school in Flint, Michigan. But he rushed for just 333 yards in three seasons at the University of Michigan, stuck behind other blue-chip recruits.

“Things happen,” Rawls said this past week. “I did enjoy my time at the University of Michigan. Things happen. That’s why I made my decision to leave. You just never know what would have happened if I would have stayed.

“I don’t regret it. I grew up a Michigan fan. I loved my time there. But I just moved on from it.”

Moved on in the summer of 2014 two hours north of Ann Arbor to Central Michigan in Mount Pleasant; he graduated from U of M with a year of football eligibility remaining. At CMU, he romped for 1,103 yards and 10 touchdowns in nine games.

Rawls played through knee pain late in the 2014 season before missing the Bahamas Bowl with what the Chippewas announced was an academic issue. In September, Central Michigan suspended him for two games when he was facing felony charges in a purse-snatching incident inside a Michigan casino. According to the Mount Pleasant Morning Sun, Rawls eventually entered a guilty plea to a high-court misdemeanor of attempted larceny in a building. He was sentenced to a year of probation, 104 hours of community service to be completed in nine months, plus fines and restitution costs.

You might assume that those were the two times Rawls doubted himself and his NFL chances. He says you’d be wrong.

He says he wasn’t discouraged or deterred 10 months ago while his CMU teammates played his final college game without him in the Bahamas.

“Not at all, because I’ve got my work ethic. And I have my faith,” he said, “and then (it’s) just taking advantage of my opportunity.”’

Carroll and Schneider aren’t among the many in the NFL who red-flag prospects as undesirable because of college suspensions or supposed “character issues.” They tracked Rawls closely as May’s draft was ending then were the first team to call him offering a tryout as a rookie free agent.

Rawls said there was another reason he accepted Seattle’s seemingly long-shot invitation: The Seahawks’ well-known willingness to give undrafted players chances for jobs.

“Always heard about it. … I know how Coach Carroll feels about guys like that,” Rawls said. “That’s one of the reasons why I also came here.”

Now he’s got Lynch, seven years his senior, and 34-year-old third-down back Fred Jackson on either side of him in neighboring lockers. They weren’t as dressed out as Rawls was for practice before it, though.

Rawls said he’s learned from Lynch how to read blocks and cut back behind Seattle’s zone blocking system. From Jackson he’s learned the nuances of running pass routes out of the backfield and pass blocking against blitzers.

“Being around these guys here made it a lot easier for me. I’m behind two veteran running backs, two guys that I’ve looked up to for a long time,” Rawls said. “They’ve got my best interests at heart, and they’ve got my back.

“I’m going to keep looking at those guys and try to take advantage of every opportunity.”

MONDAY: Detroit Lions (0-3) at Seattle Seahawks (1-2), 5:30 p.m., CenturyLink Field, ESPN, 710-AM