David Hawthorne the new man in the middle

With the “mutual agreement” release of former Pro Bowl middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu on Sunday, David Hawthorne slides back into the middle of things for the Seahawks’ defense.

For the past six seasons, no one played harder for the Seahawks – and few played better – than Lofa Tatupu.

No one had to remind coach Pete Carroll of that after the team released the three-time Pro Bowl middle linebacker Sunday, in what Carroll labeled a “mutual agreement” after he and Tatupu discussed the situation the past few days.

That’s because Carroll knew Tatupu long before the Seahawks selected him in the second-round of the NFL Draft in 2005 – largely on Carroll’s recommendation – and even before he coached him at USC. And that’s because Tatupu’s father – Mosi, a former NFL player – also played for the Trojans.

“I’ve known Lofa since he was a young kid, when Mosi brought him to SC years and years ago,” Carroll said after the first padded practice of the team’s training camp. “And I’ve loved him ever since. He’s a great kid and a great guy and an unbelievable competitor.

“I love Lofa. I have followed him, supported him, coached him and watched him grow up.”

But when the club asked Tatupu to restructure his contract, he asked the club to release him. Carroll said as they talked through the situation it became apparent that was best for both sides.

“Because this is a decision that we agreed to, I support him,” Carroll said. “We helped him in this regard. It’s a mutual agreement that we made that we both feel good about.”

Still, parting with the only player in franchise history to lead the club in tackles four consecutive seasons, a five-time defensive captain and middle linebacker on the Seahawks’ 35th Anniversary team doesn’t come without some ripples.

“We all got to say our goodbyes to him today and just tell him what he has meant to us,” said David Hawthorne, who will slide into the middle to replace Tatupu. “He meant a lot, for me especially because I came in undrafted and he kind of took me under his wing and taught me a lot.

“So today was a hard day for the linebackers. Everybody knows what he’s done for the Seahawks organization if you’ve been around and watched Seahawks football. But he’s done a lot for me, especially.”

Tatupu was a good tutor, and Hawthorne a good student. As Carroll said, “I think David is ready. He’s been ready. … So David will take over the middle linebacker spot for us and I think he’s going to do a really good job of that.”

Just as Hawthorne did in 2009, when Tatupu missed 11 games because of a torn pectoral muscle that required surgery and also a hamstring injury. In only his second season, the free-agent from TCU stepped in, stepped up and led the team in tackles (116), shared the lead in interceptions (three) and was third in sacks (four).

Last season, when Tatupu returned, Hawthorne moved to weak-side linebacker and again led the team in tackles during the regular season (105) and the postseason (18).

“He’s ready for this opportunity,” Carroll said. “One of the first things I did was go to David and talk to him and say, ‘Hey, this is what you’ve been waiting for. This is your chance to do it.’ ”

A chance Hawthorne is ready to accept because of the things Tatupu taught him.

“He went down unexpectedly with the (pectoral) injury and I just feel like most vets would have put it in the tank and focused on themselves and leave the facility and not be around,” said Hawthorne, who also picked up his nickname “Heater” from Tatupu because of the way he was bringing the heat during his rookie training camp.

“But he was a true professional in that aspect. He came back in knowing that I was a first-year (starter) out there on the field. He didn’t just want to leave me hanging and make me embarrass myself in front of millions of people. He stayed with me. Basically, he passed on all of the knowledge that he had to me. You could see it out there.”

Now, we’ll see Hawthorne out there in Tatupu’s old spot.

“I’m definitely comfortable in there. I’ve done it,” Hawthorne said. “So it’s not a foreign language, like moving from middle to outside.”

Finding a replacement for Hawthorne on the weak-side also could be a seamless transition, because veteran linebacker Leroy Hill was re-signed Friday. Hill started at the position from 2006-2009, until injuries forced him to spend last season on injured reserve.

“Real interested to see how Leroy Hill does,” Carroll said. “I didn’t get a chance to see Leroy play in person. … I’ve looked at a lot of film and the coaches that have coached him in the past and the guys that have played with him know that he’s a real good football player.

“He’s a real tough football player that we like and I’m really anxious to see how he steps up.”

Hill, a third-round pick in the same ’05 draft that delivered Tatupu, had a career-high 7½ sacks as a rookie and then totaled 92 tackles in 15 starts in 2006, 81 in 14 starts in 2007 and 81 in 12 starts in 2008.

“I’m happy to be back,” Hill said. “I’ve never stepped foot on another team’s facility or whatever, so this is all I know. So this is obviously what I wanted and I’m here.”

But because of his free-agent status before re-signing, Hill won’t be able to start practicing until Thursday. So rookie Malcolm Smith will continue to fill the weak-side spot.

This latest shuffling of the linebackers was created by Tatupu’s departure.

“I think we’ve agreed to respect the situation,” Carroll said. “I think it’s a good thing for us. I don’t know that anybody else sees it that way, but I know that Lofa and I do. We feel very good about the plan and I’m wishing him the best, and he’s wishing us the best.”