But on the hoof – even though the drills sometimes aren’t at full speed or in full pads – Max Unger very much looks like he can play in the NFL.
In fact, he might remind some Seahawks fans of former center Robbie Tobeck. Consider that a good thing.
Tobeck was a little smaller than the 6-foot-5, 309-pound Unger. But Tobeck had far better athleticism than he was given credit for, and although he was glib and a noted prankster, you could always tell that, inside, he had the competitive ferocity of a bull terrier.
Like Tobeck, Unger has shown in training camp practices that he might get beaten on a play sometimes, but he’s quick to bounce back and figure it out before the next snap.
Of course, as the Seahawks’ second-round draft pick out of the University of Oregon, Unger is entirely expected to be somebody who could challenge for a spot or be ready soon to fill in if an injury to a front-liner demands.
But even a high draft pick needs some time to get his feet under him – especially when he’s been asked, at times, to operate at center and both guard positions.
“First of all, we’re asking him to do a lot, (but) he seems to be able to handle it,” coach Jim Mora said. “He makes mistakes, and he’ll have a bad snap now and again, or he might false start, or he might block the wrong guy, but it doesn’t seem very often that he repeats the same mistake, and that’s really one of the things you’re looking for … how quickly those young guys learn from the mistakes they’re typically going to make.”
In one-on-one pass protection, for instance, he’s had to go against Cory Redding, Red Bryant and others. And in drills that give a natural advantage to the onrushing defense, Unger has been shoved around a time or two. He’s also popped up and shown no inclination toward backing down.
“This is the biggest ego check you’re going to get,” Unger said, admitting that sometimes watching practice films can be humbling. “You just have to suck it up. Everybody is going to get beat sometime, especially when you’re a rookie. Sure, you get (angry), but Coach (Greg) Knapp says that you have to have a short-term memory. Really, it better be very, very short.”
Unger’s quick climb up the learning curve is aided by the fact that he did some position switching while learning the Oregon Ducks’ very complex offense, which also featured a zone-blocking scheme that is similar in nature to the Seahawks’ new scheme.
As for durability – a key for any lineman – Unger started 51 straight games for the Ducks, earning all-Pac-10 Conference honors every season. And versatility? He earned those honors twice as a left tackle and twice at center.
As a center, he must know the responsibilities of all the line positions anyway, he said, because he is called upon to make blocking calls against the various defensive fronts.
“When you’re playing center, part of your responsibility is to call protections,” Mora said. “So he’s got to recognize safety rotations, where the nickel is … I mean, he’s got a full plate. And he’s handling it well. It’s very difficult, but Max is doing well.”
Still, as Unger enters what currently looks to be a battle with Mansfield Wrotto for the starting job at right guard, there’s not a great deal of patience for leisurely development.
“We don’t have time; Max has got to go,” line coach Mike Solari said. “We’re relying on Max to be part of the offensive line this year. We’re expecting Max to have a role as the season progresses.”
The extent of that role?
“That will depend on how well he’s able to perform when the popcorn is poppin’ under the lights,” Solari said. “That’s the key with him.”
Unger isn’t ready to pat himself on the back, but he sees improvement.
“I guess it’s getting easier; it’s slowing down a little bit compared to (offseason workouts) and minicamp,” Unger said. “I realize that I’m playing against some guys who have been playing in the NFL longer than I’ve been playing organized football.”
Even so, in the early going of training camp, he very much looks like he belongs.
Dave Boling: 253-597-8440