Tatupu, Hill big part of Seattle's defensive turnaround

DEARBORN, Mich. -- Most teams wouldn't even want to think about starting two rookie linebackers in a Super Bowl game. The Seattle Seahawks, on the other hand, don't want to think about where they might be without the accomplishments of the first-year tandem of Lofa Tatupu and LeRoy Hill.

"There's a chance," defensive tackle Chuck Darby acknowledged, "that we'd be sitting at home right now without those two guys."

A second-round draft choice, Tatupu has started all 18 games (including two postseason victories), and he is the first rookie in 28 years to lead the Seahawks in tackles. Hill started one game at weakside linebacker, and then the third-rounder moved into the lineup on the strong side and started the final eight games and two playoff games there.

On Sunday evening in Super Bowl XL, the two youngsters who helped produce a dramatic overhaul of Seattle's defense in 2005 -- a season in which the club incorporated nine new starters -- hope to culminate a terrific debut campaign.

"I'm sure there's going to be a lot of eyes on us," said Tatupu, who during the regular season had 105 tackles, four sacks, three interceptions, 10 passes defensed and a fumble recovery. "We're kind of going in, both of us, with a bull's-eye on us, you know? I mean, it's a little unusual to have even one rookie starting [on a unit], let alone two."

It is, indeed, but it's not as if it hasn't been done before.

In Super Bowl XVI, San Francisco started three rookies in the secondary -- Ronnie Lott, Eric Wright and Carlton Williamson -- in a victory over the Cincinnati Bengals, the first of the 49ers' record-tying five championships. Tatupu is correct, however, in his assessment that rookies don't often gain Super Bowl starting assignments.

Fact is, Tatupu will be only the fourth rookie to start a Super Bowl at middle linebacker in a 4-3 defensive front. Mention that to him -- or to Seahawks veterans, coaches or team officials -- and it isn't a matter of concern. That's in part because no one really views him as a rookie anymore.

And maybe they never did.

"He had almost instant respect in the huddle," said Seahawks linebackers coach John Marshall, who became the team's de facto coordinator after Ray Rhodes suffered a pair of strokes and was forced to reduce his workload. "He stepped in and all eyes were on him and he delivered. He's all football player, a tough guy, but with great instincts, too."

Tatupu comes by that honest. His father, Mosi Tatupu, played 14 seasons as a fullback in the NFL, was one of the league's premier special-teams performers and earned two trips to the Pro Bowl. His mother, Linnea, was a very good athlete and spent considerable time training Golden Glove boxers.

"Pretty good bloodlines," said Seattle linebacker Jamie Sharper, who was signed as a free agent to bolster the once-suspect corps. Sharper is now on injured reserve and serves more as a mentor to the rookies, Hill in particular.

Recruited by only a few colleges after high school, Tatupu spent one season at the University of Maine. Then, his father called in a few favors at his alma mater and he transferred to Southern California, where he started 25 games and was part of two national championship teams. His success with the Trojans aside, there were some skeptics (this correspondent among them) who felt Seattle reached a bit by using the 45th overall selection in the '05 draft on Tatupu.

But led by first-year team president Tim Ruskell, whose savvy personnel moves helped reshape a defense that statistically ranked No. 26 in 2004 and finished 16th overall this season, the Seahawks did their homework on Tatupu. They came away convinced he was the player they needed, both short- and long-term, to solve the franchise's lingering woes at middle linebacker.

Much of what Seattle did this season in remaking its defense was a factor of addition by subtraction, with Ruskell and coach Mike Holmgren making a conscious decision to weed out players who didn't fit into their shared concept. Tatupu was an addition by addition guy, though, and no one questions anymore the Seahawks' sagacity in investing a second-round choice in a middle linebacker who stands just 5-foot-11-7/8 and weighs only 238 pounds.

There are league observers who feel Tatupu should have been the league's defensive rookie of the year over fellow linebacker Shawne Merriman of San Diego, because Tatupu was the steadier and more consistent player over the course of the season. Just days shy of the Super Bowl, though, Tatupu doesn't concern himself with what might have been. And the Seahawks don't worry, either, about the naysayers who originally panned their decision to draft Tatupu and immediately install him in the lineup.

"The thing is," Ruskell said, "he was exactly what we needed. This team had lacked a quarterback on defense, and he has been that kind of guy. When we watched him on tape [before the draft], you could see his instincts and his ability to get people in the right places. And when we talked to Pete Carroll and his coaches, they pretty much confirmed that what we saw on tape was exactly what he was as a player. And what we like about him now that we've had him here for a year is that he doesn't make the same mistake twice. This is a defense that doesn't have a lot of big-ego guys, not a lot of older veterans, and they've accepted him and really look to him. So in the draft, we had a need, we liked the player, and [choosing him] wasn't really that difficult."

It wasn't particularly hard, either, to see the athleticism of Hill at Clemson and project him as at least a situational player on a defense that sought quickness and explosiveness to the football. Hill was mostly a situational pass-rusher at the outset of the season, until injuries struck and nudged him into the lineup.

He ended up starting nine regular-season games and registering 67 tackles, 7½ sacks, two forced fumbles and two passes defensed. Hill had a stretch in the second half of the season during which he notched sacks in four of five games. And despite being only 6-1 and 229 pounds, he was stouter against the run than anticipated.

That was key, because one of the Seahawks' priorities was improving against the run, and they went from 23rd to fifth in just one season. The success versus the run has carried over in the playoffs, with Seattle surrendering just 95 yards on 37 rushes. The Seahawks have not allowed an opponent to rush for 100 yards in seven straight games now. Over that stretch, Seattle has permitted an average of just 53.5 rushing yards.

"What we do on defense, the style we play, is really a good fit for me," Hill said. "We run to the football, and that's what I love to do. The other thing I like is that this defense really doesn't have any selfish players. It's about getting the job done [collectively], and I really like that attitude.

"And, hey, look where it's gotten us."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider.