Willson fell to the Seahawks in the fifth round, but general manager John Schneider said Willson tested the second best of all the tight ends in the draft.
RENTON — Luke Willson’s stats are the first thing you notice when digging into his past. More specifically, his stats from his senior season at Rice.
Willson, a tight end, caught only nine passes for 126 yards in his final collegiate season while playing in only six games because of ankle and lower back injuries. But his coaches at Rice — as well as members of the Seahawks coaching staff and front office — insist the numbers don’t do Willson justice.
“Luke was the kind of guy,” said Ryan Cantrell, an offensive graduate assistant at Rice, “that when we didn’t know what play to call, we’d go: ‘OK, we have Luke in the game. Let’s call a run zone-option to him because we know he’s going to make the block. Or we’ll call a quick three-step drop and know that he’s going to get us those 4 yards for a first down.’ He’s the guy that you can rely on for whatever it is you need him to do.”
Willson fell to the Seahawks in the fifth round, but general manager John Schneider said Willson tested the second best of all the tight ends in the draft. Willson ran the 40-yard dash in 4.51 seconds at Rice’s pro day, which would have been the second-fastest time among tight ends at the NFL combine.
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“And he ran a 4.51 on our spongy, soft turf,” Cantrell said. “You put him on a good, fast turf, and he’s going to run even better.”
The Seahawks view Willson, who is 6 feet 5 and 252 pounds, as a multifaceted tight end whose speed can provide a downfield threat in the middle of the field. Willson displayed an ability to get behind the defense in the first two days of the Seahawks rookie minicamp, particularly on the first day.
Willson hauled in a couple of deep passes down the sideline, including one nice catch-and-run that he turned into a touchdown.
“That was probably the brightest spot that you could really see a guy jump out today,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said on Friday.
Willson spent a good portion of his senior season as a blocker, something he said he’s comfortable with. He was more productive earlier in his career, when he caught 33 passes as a sophomore and 29 as a junior. He led the Owls with 425 receiving yards as a sophomore.
Cantrell remembers one game in particular from Willson’s sophomore season. Rice was playing at Tulsa, and Willson hauled in a pass down the field.
“He literally ran through three guys,” Cantrell said. “The first two guys tried to shoulder tackle him. The third guy actually tried to wrap him up, but he was so dang determined to get into the end zone.
“Because he is such a physical presence with his hand down, you forget how active he can be in the secondary and what an unbelievable mismatch he is in the passing game. He can outrun any linebacker, I’m sorry. And he’s not going to let any linebacker reroute him.”
Willson shared the tight-end position at Rice with Taylor Cook, who signed as an undrafted free agent with the Carolina Panthers, and Vance McDonald, who the 49ers drafted in the second round. McDonald received much of the pre-draft attention after making 79 catches over his last two years.
“The only thing we really wouldn’t do with Luke that we did with Vance was hand him the ball off in the backfield on a jet sweep or something,” Cantrell said. “I don’t want it to sound like a negative thing, but he is a hair stiffer than Vance. Vance is very fluid when he moves, but Luke is so in control of his body and is so aware of what he can do.”
Willson said he is feeling much healthier than he did in his final season at Rice. He said he still needs to adjust to the speed of the NFL game, but he also said, “There hasn’t been anything too crazy so far, so that’s been kind of nice.”
Schneider called Wilson an interesting prospect on the day the Seahawks took him, and his college coaches don’t have any doubt that he will find a niche in Seattle. The Seahawks return Zach Miller and Anthony McCoy at tight end.
“Honestly,” said AJ Steward, another offensive graduate assistant at Rice and a former college tight end, “Luke’s one of the hardest working guys I’ve ever been around.”
• Seahawks receivers coach Kippy Brown knew what he was getting in fourth-round draft pick Chris Harper: A big, physical receiver.
“He hasn’t disappointed,” Brown said. “Matter of fact, he’s probably more athletic than I thought.”
“You didn’t have to play as fast in college,” Harper said. “You could get away with a lot of stuff.”
Jayson Jenks: 206-464-8277 or email@example.com