During his rookie season with the Seahawks, Rawls’ most prominent trait is his blunt eagerness for contact. But Rawls does not see it as a matter of eagerness so much as one of identity.
RENTON — In high school, Thomas Rawls ran with such fury that his coach told him to tone it down because, you know, it was only practice.
“But that didn’t work, neither,” his coach, Fred Jackson Jr., said. “So I just limited his carries.”
In college, he disregarded concern for his body — or health — on his weekly hunt for defenders.
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“He didn’t try to run around people,” said Fred Jackson Sr., his position coach at Michigan (Rawls later transferred to Central Michigan). “That’s why he was hurt all the time.”
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So it is not surprising that during his rookie season with the Seahawks, Rawls’ most prominent trait is his blunt eagerness for contact. But Rawls does not see it as a matter of eagerness so much as one of identity.
“I never run out of bounds,” he said. “It’s just my makeup. It’s just my whole mentality. I think I would feel less of a person if I just ran out of bounds.”
Rawls rushed for 209 yards Sunday in a victory over the 49ers. It was a franchise rookie record and the second-most yards in team history. Rawls has rushed for 100 yards in three of the four games he has started, which is promising because it looks like he will be Seattle’s starting running back as the team awaits Marshawn Lynch’s injury status.
The success of Rawls, an undrafted free agent, can be measured any number of ways. He is averaging 6 yards per carry, which leads the NFL. He ranks 14th with 604 yards rushing despite having fewer carries than anyone in the top 25.
But the subjective measures are equally essential, because Rawls plays for the Seahawks, a team coached by Pete Carroll and built around Lynch’s brawling style. The way a running back does his job matters just as much as his production.
Last year, I watched all 360 of Lynch’s touches before the Super Bowl to see how many times a single defender tackled him. But I also kept track of how many times he stepped out of bounds, on his own. The total count in that column was one.
I wanted to check Rawls’ claim that he also never runs out of bounds, so I re-watched all 107 of his touches this season.
What I found is that Rawls has never willingly stepped out of bounds. In fact, every chance he had, he did the exact opposite. Just when it looked like the arc of his run would lead him out, he turned back into whichever defender was closest.
On his second touch last week, Rawls caught a pass and took off down the sideline. Tramaine Brock, a 49ers cornerback, stood in his way, along the sideline. Rawls lowered his shoulder, sent Brock spilling to the ground, and gained a couple extra yards. Fred Jackson Sr., his college coach, called that running through the yellow light.
“I think he thought I was going to go out of bounds,” Rawls said, “but little did he know I’m not running out of bounds.”
It was a 12-yard gain and a first down, but go back and look. The sideline erupted, sending the same jolt that Lynch so often brought and whose powers the Seahawks believe in like a dark magic.
What made Lynch special is that he delivered the same punishment in the fourth quarter as he did in the first. Rawls is not Lynch. Lynch is a singular talent. He was so physical that teammates noticed defenders adjusting their helmets or fixing their chin straps after most tackles, and defensive backs sometimes avoided contact.
Rawls isn’t as powerful, but he runs with the same intentions. In the third quarter, he broke a tackle, bounced the run outside and, once again, shouldered Brock to the ground instead of stepping out.
Both collisions left Brock adjusting his facemask as he got up.
“It’s like he doesn’t have fear,” said Rawls’ high-school coach, Fred Jackson Jr., “and he wants you to know he’s not scared.”
Carroll has a similar hypothesis.
“He makes somebody miss,” Carroll said, “to find somebody to hit.”
Rawls is a unique runner in his own right. He is short at 5 feet 9 and runs low to the ground. It is hard for defenders to get a clean shot. He can plant his foot, cut and change directions quickly and is fast enough to pull away.
But it is clear that nuance ranks second and third to power for Rawls, who weighs 215 pounds.
“He runs like a rhino,” said Fred Jackson Jr. “Maybe he needs that nickname. Rhinos run with their head down, big shoulders, and they’re fast. He runs like a rhino to me.”