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Can Bruce Irvin make the transition to linebacker?

All eyes are on Bruce Irvin as he attempts to learn a new position during Seahawks training camp. (AP)

By Danny O’Neil

RENTON – For Bruce Irvin to make progress in his football career, he must take a few steps back.

That has nothing to do with the four-game suspension he’ll serve to start the season and everything to do with the fact last year’s first-round pick is now spending some time at a new position this training camp.

Irvin as a linebacker is no longer a theoretical exercise. It’s happening on a daily basis at training camp as he splits time between the defensive end spot he played a year ago and strongside linebacker.

It’s an experiment that is as intriguing as it is uncertain, and one-quarter of the way through training camp, it’s impossible for me to predict the outcome other than to say there’s nothing I will be watching more closely through the month of August.

It’s possible to look at the situation and forecast a stunning success that will give Seattle’s defense a second outside pass rusher along the lines of Clay Matthews in Green Bay. It’s also just as easy to look at the scouting report on Irvin and wonder if he won’t be back at defensive end in the regular season, creating the possibility of a log jam after the signing of Cliff Avril and Chris Clemons coming back from injury.

Irvin was drafted to do one thing: rush the passer. After leading all rookies with eight sacks last season, the team is now asking him to move to a position that will require him to drop back in coverage more frequently, something he hasn’t done since he was a freshman in junior college.

So is the move a sign Irvin isn’t fit to be an every-down defensive end even in this scheme?

Could be. It could also be a move that allows Seattle to put another pass rusher on the field, thereby addressing what was the single biggest weakness of this team. And remember, we’re talking about a team that has had tremendous success in positional switches whether it was moving Red Bryant to defensive end in 2010 or taking a collegiate defensive tackle in J.R. Sweezy and putting him on offense and watching him develop into a starter as a rookie.

Coach Pete Carroll has been encouraged by Irvin’s progress so far.

“He has really taken to it,” Carroll said.

Carroll also tried to downplay the significance of the switch from the defensive end spot that is termed the Leo in Seattle’s defense to the strongside linebacker spot known as Sam.

“Our positions of Sam and Leo are really almost interchangeable,” Carroll said. “The ratios of rush go a little bit higher at the Leo spot than the Sam spot. He’s playing both.”

But Irvin will have to drop into coverage more often, and there’s a legitimate question if he’ll be able to operate in space, knowing how far he should drop and who he must cover. After all, this is a player who appeared in one high-school game before dropping out and that was as a receiver, and while he went to junior college as a safety, he couldn’t get on the field at that spot because he struggled to understand coverages.

The coaches gave him a shot at defensive end, where the instructions were as simple as it gets in football: See the quarterback, chase the quarterback and hopefully hit the quarterback. He excelled first in junior college, later at West Virginia and then in Seattle last season as he led all NFL rookies with eight sacks while backing up Clemons.

So how does he look at linebacker?

“He’s a terrific athlete so in that part it has been easy,” said Dan Quinn, Seattle’s defensive coordinator. “The guy has really worked hard this spring in terms of getting the approach, getting it down.”

Now, we’ll see how it translates in pads at full speed. One thing that’s clear is that while Irvin will be out for the first four games of the regular season, he’s going to be on the field a lot in August. The emphasis is on getting him repetitions.

It’s too early to offer any conclusions on the move, only to say that this is something worth watching. If it works, Seattle is going to add a second pass rusher who’s lightning quick coming off the edge. If it doesn’t, it creates the possibility that last year’s rookie leader in sacks could get lost on the depth chart.

Unless, that is, Irvin shows he’s capable of moving back to linebacker, which would really allow him to take a step forward in Seattle’s defense.