Flanked by his extended family and half-dozen friends, Luke Willson sat in his parents’ basement watching the 2013 NFL draft.
His phone rattled. Seahawks general manager John Schneider was on the other end. He told Willson he was about to be picked by Seattle in the fifth round.
“Jubilation,” Willson recalled of his reaction.
That call and Anthony McCoy’s partial tear of his Achilles tendon in the summer gave Willson the opportunity to join the NFL’s best team. It also landed him next to Pro Bowl tight end Zach Miller.
This is Miller’s seventh NFL season and third with the Seahawks. It’s also his seventh year working with offensive line coach Tom Cable. Miller’s understanding of all elements in the Seahawks’ scheme — running, passing and blocking — is complete.
Willson is just starting.
“Going into the season, we knew we had kind of a raw kid,” tight ends coach Pat McPherson said. “Could really run. Catch the ball very well. Tough. Competitive. The whole deal.”
Willson, 6-foot-5 and 252 pounds, came to the Seahawks from Rice University, where the Owls ran a lot of speed option. He didn’t have majestic receiving numbers. His career-high in receptions was 33 in 2010, and Willson caught nine passes his senior season in 11 games.
He was thrilled to join the Seahawks and latched onto Miller early.
“Zach’s such a complete tight end, so that’s been the biggest thing for me,” Willson said. “That’s on and off the field. He catches the ball, he runs good routes.”
The Seahawks look to their second tight end to be more of a situational player than the all-around tight end that Miller is. Kellen Davis is often in to block. Willson is used for his pass-catching ability, at this point. He has 18 receptions for 265 yards.
He exploited the San Francisco 49ers when Seattle lost at Candlestick Park in Week 14. Willson, who has been timed at 4.51 in the 40-yard dash, caught his first NFL touchdown after blowing past 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis and breaking into the clear for a 39-yard score.
“Against the 49ers, he had a couple plays, wow, just accelerating to the ball,” McPherson said. “The one against Willis was a tremendous route.”
After Tuesday’s practice, Willson stayed on the field to work with McPherson. His pad level when blocking needs to improve. He needs to learn how to better get off press coverage.
“Needs to continue to get better at short area quickness and having a plan going into the play,” McPherson said.
These are subtleties Miller has mastered. The Seahawks use him to block on the back or front sides. He’s crucial on third down, as the Seahawks’ earlier game this season against this Sunday’s opponent, Arizona, reminded. Miller converted a third-and-3 in the third quarter when a tumbling Russell Wilson shoved a pass toward Miller who was coming across the field. He dived to pull it in.
“Luke has tremendous talent,” coach Pete Carroll said. “He has speed and strength and catching ability and range and all of that, but to make yourself a great pro it’s those other elements that you need to really bring the package together, and Zach really does demonstrate that on a regular basis.”
Miller tries to convey points to Willson from a player’s perspective.
“You try not to give him too much but give him what he needs,” Miller said. “Give him what will help him the most.”
As the season has progressed, the Seahawks’ faith in Willson has grown. They are beginning to trust him more as a blocker. They’ve opened up his usage some. He still doesn’t handle the load that Miller does, but he’s only in Week 16 of his first season.
“He’s really just getting started,” Carroll said. “He’s a tremendous prospect for us for the years to come.”