To watch the Seahawks’ herd of young bucks at linebacker is to suspect the evolution of a new predatory species, a hybrid that maximizes speed without sacrificing power.
And fitting in well with this group during offseason workouts is a lean and fast kid wearing Leroy Hill’s old jersey. This new No. 56 seems very polished, though.
As it turns out – somewhat against the odds and occasional skepticism – the guy in Hill’s jersey actually is Leroy Hill.
At 235 pounds, with scant 12-percent body fat, Hill resembles the 2005 rookie linebacker who surprised everyone with 71/2 sacks and led the Seahawks in tackles during their playoff run to the Super Bowl.
“I feel amazing,” Hill said after a recent practice. “A little more muscle and leaner … I committed to the offseason program and I’ve been going hard and feeling great. I feel … youthful.”
Hill will turn 30 in September. He’s had injuries that have sidetracked his career, and off-field issues that probably limited his marketability and earnings over the years.
But here he is, one of only two Seahawks remaining (along with cornerback Marcus Trufant) from the Super Bowl XL squad.
Hill looks as if he’s up to the challenge. He looks even better in fact than last season, when he started all 16 games and was fourth in tackles (89) and second in sacks (4.0).
“Hey, there’s no choice in this business,” he said. “Last season was a springboard season and I’ve been working hard to have another great season.”
The Seahawks drafted linebackers Bobby Wagner (Utah State) and Korey Toomer (Idaho) this year to complement one of last season’s best surprises, fourth-round pick K.J. Wright, who learned the strong-side position so well he made former first-round pick Aaron Curry expendable in trade.
“We’ve got a young team and the theme is to compete, and they’re ready to compete,” Hill said. “Bobby is playing (middle linebacker) and he’s picking it up and running with it, and we’re helping him out along the way.”
Hill pointed out that 10 of 11 starters return from a defense that finished No. 9 in league statistics. But the one starter lost was veteran middle linebacker David Hawthorne, and that absence thrusts Hill into a new role.
Through Hill’s early seasons, Lofa Tatupu had been the leader of the defense, and Hawthorne accepted that duty when he succeeded Tatupu in the middle. Now, Hill is linebacker emeritus.
“I’ve never really had to do that; I usually just came in and played my position since there was always a leader,” he said. “This year, the guys are looking up to me. I’ve never had to be that, but it’s important to me and I’m taking on that role.”
Hill signed a one-year contract in April, and even that short extension seemed unlikely in late February when he was arrested for marijuana possession in Georgia – the second time in his career he’s faced that charge.
But when a negative urinalysis came back, charges were almost immediately dropped. Still, the initial headlines added to a smudged public image.
“I went into last offseason with a lot of confidence and then there was that incident and that kind of shot me down a little bit,” he said. “But that doesn’t change my confidence on the field. It was unfortunate timing is what it was, but you move on.
“That stuff has clouded people’s perception of me, or whatever,” he said. “But I’m back on the field and I feel amazing and ready to play football.”