Luke Willson steps into familiar role as Seahawks’ starting tight end

Dec 3, 2015, 2:14 PM | Updated: 2:30 pm
Luke Willson caught 21 passes for 361 yards and three touchdowns last season in 13 games as Seattle's starter. (AP)
(AP)

RENTON – To hear Luke Willson tell it, there’s only one small difference from the last time an injury to Seattle’s starting tight end bumped him up to the lead role.

“I got a podium this year,” Willson joked Wednesday. “Other than that, not really.”

Willson got the press-conference treatment this time, but aside from that he’s in the same situation as he was a year ago now that Jimmy Graham has been lost for the remainder of the season due to a knee injury. Last year, Willson stepped into the starting lineup after Zach Miller went down. That experience is valuable now that Willson will have to do it again.

“Just being through it,” he said. “We had some wild games last year, especially down the stretch. I feel pretty comfortable. I felt comfortable this entire year.”

The Seahawks placed Graham on injured reserve on Monday and signed Chase Coffman a day later. He and Cooper Helfet will serve as the backups while Willson steps into starting role. Willson said the biggest change will be with his playing time. He had been on the field for about 38 percent of Seattle’s offensive snaps this season compared to 78 percent for Graham, according to data from Football Outsiders. But what Willson will be asked to do won’t be much different.

In Xs and Os parlance, the U tight end is the pass-catcher, someone who moves around the formation and runs every route whereas the Y tight end is used primarily as a blocker. The Seahawks drafted Willson in the fifth round in 2013 as more of a receiving specialist, someone whose speed would allow him to make plays deep down the field – and it has. But as the starters changed from Miller to Graham, Willson has taken on more blocking responsibilities.

“When we had Zach, I was more the down-the-seam guy, stretch the field,” he said. “With Jimmy, I’ve became more of Zach.”

And coach Pete Carroll believes he’s done that job well.

“He’s become a regular blocker in our system,” Carroll said. “The speed, the route running, the catching that he does is one part of it, but he’s an all-around tight end and he can do all of the stuff we want him to do. He continues to find ways to get better, and he’s really a dogged competitor. This guy really brings it every day. It really matters to him to see if he can find a way to help us and to improve. So he’s become a real all-around, general tight end, can do it all and we’re excited to have him. We’re going to use him a lot too, he’ll be involved in everything.”

It didn’t take long for the Seahawks to get Willson involved after Graham went down in the fourth quarter Sunday against Pittsburgh. He caught as 12-yard pass on the very next play, which Carroll and offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell said was by design.

“I think there’s kind of a lot of subtle messages,” Bevell said of the decision to go to Willson right away. “One, to tell Luke that we have confidence in him. There’s no question that we believe in him. He’s been here. He’s played at a high level for us, and he is appreciated. Two, that that’s not just going to be, ‘OK, that’s dead now and that’s not going to be part of the offense.’ So there’s all kinds of messages that you can send with that.”

The Seahawks will miss Graham, who was on pace for the most prolific season by a tight end in franchise history despite the notion that he was under-producing. But in Willson they have someone who has stepped in and stepped up before.

“He’s really just become a really well-rounded tight end in terms of we really can count on him to do just about anything that we ask him to do and know that he’s going to do it pretty well,” Bevell said.

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