Golden Tate muscled his way past cornerback Brandon Browner and hauled in a long pass from Matt Flynn to the delight of Seattle Seahawks fans on hand for practice Sunday.
But unlike other times when Tate made big plays during training camp, no attention-grabbing gestures followed. Tate just tossed the ball back to the official and hustled back to the huddle.
Fellow receiver Sidney Rice took notice.
“He’s grown a lot as a player,” Rice said. “He used to make big plays, jump up and throw the ball in the air and jump around – things like that. But I see him becoming more of a professional. He’s doing much better.”
The third-year pro said the light bulb finally went on during the second half of the 2011 season, when Rice was shut down for the year because of successive concussions and the Seahawks had little choice but to put the former Notre Dame receiver in the starting lineup.
Tate, 24, started the final five games of the season, making 19 catches for 209 yards and a touchdown during that span.
“I felt like when they had nowhere else to go I had to step up,” Tate said. “I had to do it. … So I took it a lot more serious – not that I didn’t take it serious in the first place.
“So there was more studying, more film and paying attention to details on the field, and on the practice field; being very coachable, so when it was time for me to shine I did my best to make the plays I’m supposed to make.”
Now, Tate’s hoping to turn last season’s audition into a full-time starting position. With Seattle releasing veteran Mike Williams before training camp, the starting split end job opposite Rice is up for grabs, and right now Tate is the leader in a crowded clubhouse that includes Ben Obomanu, Deon Butler, Ricardo Lockette and Kris Durham.
At 5-foot-10 and 202 pounds, Tate does not have the prototypical size of a big, physical split end who can stretch the field. But similar to Carolina’s Steve Smith, Tate’s athleticism allows him to play bigger than his size.
“Personally I feel that although I’m 5-10, I feel like I play like I’m 6-1 or 6-2,” he said. “I feel like I can go get the ball up in the air just as well as anyone else.
“I personally like being outside. And I feel like I’m more productive and I can do more damage to a defense outside.”
The Seahawks tried Tate at slot receiver last season, but Doug Baldwin, an undrafted rookie free agent, ultimately won the job.
Tate, who received the Biletnikoff Award as the best collegiate receiver in the country his final season at Notre Dame, was a consensus All-American first-team selection.
But when Tate arrived in Seattle in 2010 as the team’s second-round draft choice, he struggled to consistently get on the field because his route running was raw.
And Tate admitted to having an attitude problem once he was informed he would not be a mainstay of Seattle’s offense.
“I never had to work for my position; it was always given to me,” Tate said. “I was always more athletic, so for the first time ever I felt like I had to work. It wasn’t given to me. And then when I didn’t respond the correct way my rookie year, I was like, ‘If I’m not starting, whatever.’
“But once I learned to prepare like I’m the starter, regardless if I’m third-string or sixth-string, I think it started to come.”
Tate said after he started practicing at game speed, the actual games slowed down, he got more comfortable and he started to make plays. And he began to earn the trust of the quarterbacks, coach Pete Carroll and the organization.
Tate continued that trend during the offseason by going to Minnesota and training with Pro Bowl receiver Larry Fitzgerald.
So what nuggets did Tate pick up from the Arizona playmaker?
“The biggest thing I learned is his conditioning,” Tate said. “That’s what separates him. It’s his discipline and how he pays attention to detail.”
And now Tate is using the All-Pro’s advice and experience to help Seattle realize its potential this season.
“We think we have a special team,” Tate said. “We’ve got a lot of talent. We think this is a year for us to be special, so I prepared like it’s now or never.”