Boulware's move requires different skills set
Seahawks rookie Michael Boulware has a tough adjustment to make in switching from LB to SS.
If the suggestions are really legitimate that Marcus Coleman has made the transition from cornerback to free safety with incredible adroitness this spring -- and even the veteran defensive back acknowledges that the reports skew the reality -- the Houston Texans will have taken a major step toward shoring up their secondary.
But position switches in the NFL can be dicey propositions, even for an eight-year pro like Coleman, so one can only imagine the pressure on the seven or eight rookies who are being asked to change stripes in their maiden season in the league. The daunting task has been likened to learning a foreign tongue in record time, much faster even than they teach language classes at Berlitz schools, but even that analogy might understate the difficulty.
Which brings us to Michael Boulware, certainly no dummy, but a rookie who is being fed a crash course in playing at strong safety after starring for four seasons at Florida State as a weak-side linebacker. Boulware was selected by the Seattle Seahawks in the second round of the 2004, draft, with the intent of moving him to the secondary, where he hasn't lined up since his senior year at Spring Valley High School in Columbia, S.C.
The Seattle staff, head coach Mike Holmgren insisted just after selecting Boulware, is fully committed to playing the former Seminoles star at strong safety. Coordinator Ray Rhodes, whose defense finished an unacceptable No. 27 against the pass in 2003, all but hand-picked Boulware as a youngster who could help provide a speedy fix. To this point, with roughly another month before training camp begins, results have been promising.
But even the confident Boulware, who never flinched when apprised of the switch, has moments when he wonders how quickly he can assimilate the nuances of a new position. And for that, he can be forgiven, since there isn't a single veteran in the league being asked to make such a formidable position change in 2004. Sure, there are veterans who are switching positions in the offensive line, a couple linebackers moving around, and two players going from strong safety to free safety.
It is believed that no one else, though, is changing units entirely.
"There are still times," Boulware conceded, "when I find myself wanting to break down in a linebacker stance. People are right when they compare it to learning a new language. You pick up a word here or there that you understand, but sometimes you don't get the whole sentence, and so it's hard to get things (in context). The only way to get better, from both a physical and mental standpoint, is to keep doing it. At some point, it will all come naturally, but I'm not there yet. It's still a struggle at times."
There is a small group of rookies, also making position transitions, who commiserate with Boulware's experience. Former Nebraska quarterback Jammal Lord, chosen by Houston in the sixth round, is now a safety. The Texans have also moved first-rounder Jason Babin, a defensive end at Western Michigan, to strong-side linebacker. Another first-round pick, Shawn Andrews of Philadelphia, is switching from offensive tackle to guard. His onetime Arkansas teammate, fifth-rounder Tony Bua of Miami, is going from safety to linebacker. There are three rookies who lined up at defensive end in college but will be linebackers in the NFL for teams that employ the 3-4 front.
But outside of Andrews, who is certain to come under heavy scrutiny because some of the draft pundits feel Philadelphia chose him too high and because the Eagles are one of the early Super Bowl favorites, Boulware is probably the rookie switching positions who will be most examined. Certainly his transition, to a position that requires a dramatically different skills set than the one he mastered in college, is the most challenging.
It's one thing to play pass defense at linebacker, where you are mostly covering backs on third down, and working primarily in the flat and short hook zones. It is quite another to lock onto a tight end and have to shadow him 15-20 yards upfield.
The irony is that, had it not been for a back injury before his senior year at Florida State, Boulware might have made the switch to safety last season. The Seminoles' legendary coordinator, Mickey Andrews, also felt Boulware possessed the overall athleticism and movement skills in space to play in the secondary, but the back injury forced him to scrap the plan. At the combine workouts in February, league scouts auditioned Boulware at both linebacker and safety, and the Seahawks were among several teams that projected him to the latter position.
"When you look at his feet, you can see he can backpedal, and he takes good angles to the ball," said Seahawks secondary coach Teryl Austin. "It's not like he's clumsy and just tripping all over himself. He needs (repetition), sure, but we think he can do it."
There have been times this spring when Boulware has been caught up in the "no man's land" that defines the area between the linebackers and the secondary. Other occasions have seen him botch some of the Seattle defensive terminology. But there is enough innate ability, snippets of empirical evidence which suggests he has the nascent skills set to play safety at the NFL level, to ensure the Seahawks won't just hastily throw in the towel on the position change experiment.
If he can successfully make the move, Boulware could be part of a revamped Seattle secondary that might feature three starters all of whom have less than three seasons of league tenure. The Seahawks, who are the chic pick in the NFC West signed former Eagles cornerback Bobby Taylor this spring. But if the secondary is to experience a quantum leap in 2004, the enhancement will largely have to come from younger players like corners Marcus Trufant and Ken Lucas and safeties Ken Hamlin and Boulware.
Should the secondary demonstrate improvement, it could help catapult the Seahawks, not just into contention for their first division title since 1999 but also perhaps for the league championship. Having played at FSU, where anything shy of contending for the national title is considered a down season, even Boulware can understand that language.
"Winning is something," he noted, "that is always easy to translate."
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Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.
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