Interest growing in Washington linebacker Mason Foster

By Len Pasquarelli

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Even though Mason Foster played some quarterback at Seaside (Calif.) High School, and led his team to a 12-1 record in 2006, the former University of Washington star’s destiny on the other side of the ball was pretty much determined years earlier.

Just a month or so shy of Foster’s seventh birthday, his parents, William and Margarette, squirreled away enough money to take Foster to the 1996 Pro Bowl game, and during the visit to Hawaii, he met Junior Seau. The ’96 encounter left a lasting impression and, while Foster might not qualify for a dozen Pro Bowl appearances, as Seau did during a 20-year NFL career that figures to someday land him in the Hall of Fame, it was enough to convince the youngster it is more fun to hit offensive players than to be one.

“(Playing) quarterback was some fun, because it helped develop my overall instincts for the game,” Foster said during a weekend telephone interview with The Sports Xchange. “But I think I’ve found my calling.”

Increasingly in recent days, with fewer than four weeks remaining until the start of the NFL draft, league scouts are finding Foster. The consensus seems to be that he will be go off the board in the second round, and there is plenty of buzz now about him at a position that has diminished in recent years in terms of draft priority.

Linebacker is not considered an especially deep position in the draft. There were 32 linebackers at the combine in February, and only a few of them could claim the kind of position-versatility that Foster possesses.

A veritable tackling machine, Foster registered 163 stops in 2010, second-most in the country, and the most in the Pac-10 since 1989. In all but one of 13 games, he had double-digit tackles. At the Senior Bowl all-star contest, Foster racked up a game-high eight tackles. Of course, in college as the NFL, tackles are subjective stats, often inflated, and not often a valid measure of a prospect’s true abilities. In the case of Foster, though, the accompanying skills-set seems to be in line with the amazing tackle numbers.

Said a college scout from one of the six teams with whom Foster will visit, beginning with a Monday trip to Miami, and continuing into next week: “What you see, beyond all the tackles, is a good football sense. And a toughness, too. Yeah, he might have some limitations, but the guy is a good football player. He’s got a really good football I.Q., and that means something.”

There are some critics who suggest that Foster’s numbers are inflated by the fact the Huskies’ defense was so porous, that the linebacker was on the field an awful lot, and that the totals were in part born by self-survival. But Foster, who had 378 tackles in his career, and who at times started at each of the three positions in the Huskies’ 4-3 front, is a guy who is simply around the ball all the time.

And it’s hard to make excuses for that.

Washington linebackers coach Mike Cox, who was once on the staff of the St. Louis Rams, termed Foster a “ball magnet.” Defensive coordinator Nick Holt called him a “tough guy.” Seattle radio personality and former NFL quarterback Hugh Millen, a former Washington standout who has seen every one of Foster’s games for the university, gave him a “thumbs-up.”

Most scouts feel Foster, 22, is superior to former Washington linebacker Donald Butler, selected by San Diego in the third round in 2010, but sidelined for his entire rookie campaign by an Achilles injury. Although a bit thin in the lower body, Foster is extremely durable.

For his part, Foster isn’t swayed by comparisons or draft rank, just getting a chance at a career in the league to which he was first turned on by his father.

“If some team said I had to cut my hair to be able to play,” said Foster, alluding to the dreadlocks that have dangled beneath his helmet since his sophomore season, “then I’d do it. I mean, I love my hair … but I love football more.”

Foster checked in at 6-feet-1 1/4, 245 pounds at the combine in February, and ran a 4.75, had a 31-inch vertical jump and a long jump of 9-feet, 2-inches. At his Pro Day audition for scouts, he shaved his 40-time to 4.67. There are still some scouts who fret about whether Foster drops well enough to project to weak-side ‘backer in the NFL, the position he played at Washington in 2010, but there is no doubting his overall versatility.

While a junior, he played the strong-side spot in a 4-3, then went to the weak side in ’10, and has started a few games in the middle. Foster probably has enough bulk, and ability to cut through trash and get to the ball, to play inside in a 3-4.

As demonstrated by his 6.5 sacks last season, Foster is beginning to sharpen some rush moves beyond simply getting up the field. While he is developing as a linebacker at the NFL level, Foster could be a special teams standout for a year or two.

“Motor, intensity, love of the game, wanting to play the right way … all the (intangibles) that Seau had,” Foster said. “I learned pretty early on that, no matter how good you are, you’d better have all that stuff, too.”