Seattle Seahawks

Seahawks seek mental toughness with unique qualities; Utah defensive end Nate Orchard has both

One of the final — and most interesting — phases of the Seahawks pre-draft evaluation process began last week.

General manager John Schneider and his scouting staff brought a list of players and backgrounds to the team’s sports psychologists.

Schneider wants expert opinions on whether the guys he and the Seahawks are targeting can survive emotionally in coach Pete Carroll’s “always-compete” cauldron of competition. Are they mentally tough enough?

“You know, be able to sit in a room with Earl (Thomas) and Kam (Chancellor) and Sherm (Richard Sherman) … You have to have some unique qualities about you to be able to compete with those guys,” Schneider said.

You don’t need to be a licensed sports psychologist to know Nate Orchard is mentally tough. With some absolutely unique qualities.

The Utah outside linebacker was a second-team All-American and first-team All-Pac-12 last season. He was second in the nation to Washington’s Hau’oli Kikaha with 18.5 sacks. After an impressive Senior Bowl (five tackles, two quarterback hits), he is expected to be drafted anywhere from the second to the fourth round this weekend. That would have him available for a Seahawks defense that needs to sustain its pass rush to remain the league’s top-ranked unit.

The fourth quarter of Super Bowl 49 in February showed how important a pass rush is to Seattle. Tom Brady was 24 for 35 passing with two interceptions through three quarters, and the Seahawks led 24-14. But on Seattle’s second interception of Brady, in the third quarter, Seattle rush end Cliff Avril got a concussion.

In the fourth quarter, without Avril threatening anymore, New England was able to devote more protection against Bruce Irvin off the other side. Michael Bennett, who had been so disruptive inside on third downs against the Patriots’ iffy guards and center, had to move back outside to fill Avril’s spot.

Without the same pass rush from the Seahawks in the fourth quarter, Brady completed 13 of 15 passes with the two touchdowns that rallied New England to the 28-24 win.

Irvin’s rookie contract could end after the coming season, or Seattle could choose by Sunday to pick up his fifth-year option for $7.8 million for 2016. Either way, the Seahawks may have a potential need at edge rusher in the near future. And they can never have enough of those guys, anyway.

NFLDraftScout.com considers Orchard to be the “prototype” pass rusher in the draft that begins with round one Thursday.

But Orchard is so much more than that.

He’s a former runaway who is now on the cusp of NFL riches.

He was Nate Fakahafua when he walked out of his family home and into a new one in Salt Lake City at age 13, with only the clothes he was wearing and a basketball as his possessions.

“I didn’t imagine myself in this position. I was a kid who was lost. No way in heck did I think I’d be here today,” Orchard said during an engaging, disarming interview this winter at the league’s scouting combine in Indianapolis. “I always dreamed of it, but I went off the road. I went astray and wasn’t doing the right things.

“But I’m back on track now.”

Back on track — and potentially in Seattle’s sights with its first picks Friday, in the second and third rounds — thanks to Dave and Katherine Orchard.

Nate was born in Los Angeles, then moved away from his mother while in grade school to Salt Lake City, to live with his brother who was an 18-year-old father of two children. School wasn’t the first priority in that crowded house of brothers growing up fast and young nieces.

Dave Orchard was young Nate’s coach on a club basketball team, and he and his wife had housed some players who needed help. One day on a ride to practice, Nate asked Orchard if he could live with him, too.

Soon Coach Orchard and his wife became Nate’s legal guardians.

Not that the ensuing teenage years were smooth from there. That is why he later changed his name from Fakahafua to Orchard, to honor what they did for him.

Such as when they searched for three weeks before finding him in Salt Lake City shooting hoops at a park. He had run away from his adoptive home to protest the institution of a bed time.

“They mean everything to me. They’re my parents,” Nate said of the Orchards. “They’re folks who didn’t give up on me when things got hard, when I was a stubborn kid and ran away so many times just because I had chores and I had a curfew. They didn’t give up on me.”

They saw him mature into a 6-foot-3 basketball player and wide receiver, winning state titles in both sports for Highland High School. He thought he was going to be a Utes wide receiver — until Utah coach Kyle Whittingham offered sage advice.

“Going into Utah at 190 (pounds), that was what I was expected to play at. But coach Whitt said, ‘Hey, put on 60 pounds and you can go to the NFL, I promise you that,’ ” Orchard said.

“He was right.”

He was 195 pounds as a freshman and 215 entering his sophomore season. By his junior year he was 225.

“Then I jumped up to 255 going into my senior year,” the former wide receiver said, smiling.

He credits Utah’s nutrition staff, natural maturity — and marriage.

In the spring of 2013, before his junior season at Utah, he married Maegan Webber, whom he’d dated in high school. That summer, their daughter was born. Katherine Mae, named after the woman who took Nate in with Coach Orchard, turns two this summer.

Nate says marriage had an impact on his play, too.

“Huge,” he said. “At the same time, being married you go home at a reasonable hour and get plenty of sleep.

“Married. Got a little girl. Doing all the right things. Just taking care of my family is my main priority.

“I’m ready to be the best at the next level.”

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