INSTANTLYTarık Yün had gone from smiles to tears.
The Seattle Seahawks’ hapless rookie phenomenon was standing on the podium at SoFi Stadium answering questions about the key games played by the cornerer who beat the Los Angeles Rams away.
Woolen tricked quarterback John Wolford into throwing a deep pass, which he selected for his sixth interception of the season, equalizing the NFL lead and breaking a franchise rookie record previously shared by Earl Thomas and Michael Boulware.
He suffered two more pass splits, one that helped seal the win and the other against fast wide receiver Tutu Atwell, where he opened the jets to close a 4-yard gap and parried what would have been a long completion if not a touchdown. .
“Most of the time, when it’s a deep ball,” Woolen said, “I never feel defeated.”
Then came the question that caught him.
Woolen rubbed her eyes when asked how, as a rookie, she moved from the fifth-round pick from the University of Texas at San Antonio to the top of the NFL and the franchise leaderboards.
“Dude, I think it’s a blessing. I remember sitting in the living room on enlistment day,” he said, hesitating to wipe the tears from his cheeks. “I don’t want to get too emotional, but I just remember sitting in front of my family, getting calls from different people. I was embarrassed because I thought I was calling a team because I heard different things. It was just seeing corners go, corners go, corners go… And then Day 3 came.”
Woolen, 23, thought she would be drafted in the second or third round. The Seahawks took him 153rd overall.
But this isn’t just another story of a player using the draft weekend slide as a motivator to set the league on fire. It’s about how quickly Woolen rose from a purported project pick to a headhunter quarterback and NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year nominee.
And it was a bright spot in a dizzying defense towards Thursday night’s game against the San Francisco 49ers (9-4) at Seattle’s Lumen Field. The Seahawks (7-6) need to win in the NFC West race to survive and stay out of the conference playoff table.
The Seahawks haven’t faced such a threat around the corner since Richard Sherman, who worked with the rookie during his visits to the Seahawks training camp and will be part of the Prime Video broadcast team hosting Thursday’s contest.
“He was phenomenal,” Sherman told ESPN. “In an extraordinary condition.”
HOLDING BREATH At Indianapolis’ Lucas Oil Stadium, Woolen couldn’t believe it.
He ran his second 40-yard throw in 4.26 seconds and was the fourth fastest in the NFL scouting squad since 2006.
It also recorded a vertical jump of 42 inches. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Woolen is the only player to run this fast and jump this high on a combine since early 2006; and tied at 6ft-4⅛ for the third-highest corner measured during that time.
Woolen has a rare combination of size and physical dexterity, while Seattle coach Pete Carroll said he dropped into the fifth round because his inconsistent college tape also showed a “tough on the sidelines” player with only two full seasons of experience on the corner kick. .
A sophomore wide receiver for UTSA in 2019, Woolen didn’t play much on offense. With the Roadrunners stuck in the corner late in the season, then coach Frank Wilson pulled him behind a boardroom and offered the change, trying to sell his opportunity to see the field.
Wool was not interested. He had always played offense and he didn’t really know how to fight, nor did he want to know. But he reluctantly agreed.
Woolen took replays at both positions in training for several weeks, then made her first corner appearance in the season finale.
It turned out to be a career changer.
Seahawks defensive coordinators Clint Hurtt and Carroll started with Woolen as right corners from Week 1 and endured the growing pains — some early penalties, the occasional jump in coverage and erratic running defense — that he balanced with big plays.
The first such game came in Week 2 in San Francisco when he shot from the right side and used one of his 33⅝-inch arms to block a goal from the field where teammate Mike Jackson came back for an 86-yard touchdown. At this point, Hurtt had begun to refer to Woolen as “Avatar” as a nod to his blend of almost extraterrestrial physical features.
“These levers are what you look for in a transition rush,” Hurtt said. “You want players to be tall, who usually rush to feed the passer or make a living by protecting the quarterback. He’s out on the offensive line with the little guys and they can’t even touch his body when he reaches out.”
In October, Woolen became only the third NFL rookie to record a block in four games since 2000. One of them was the 40-yard six pick for the Detroit Lions in Week 4. He clocked 21.58 mph on the turn, the seventh fastest time ever recorded among any ball carrier this season, according to Next Gen Stats.
Woolen now realizes that the change of position she initially fought against put her on the path to stardom. He and Wilson had not parted ways on good terms, but Woolen decided to send her former coach a message last month.
“Everything I want to do as an NFL football player happens,” Woolen said. “So I told him I thanked him, and he appreciated that.”
SHERMAN DOESN’T LIKE participating in what has become a popular comparison, opting instead to give Woolen her own strip. However, the similarities between them make it impossible to watch Woolen without thinking about Sherman.
They share the same long, angular structure that Carroll always looks for in a press corner. In the same round, they were elected except for one election. They experienced the same early success; Sherman had four passes in 10 starts as a rookie. And they both started their college careers as wide receivers.
Early in training camp, Carroll found Woolen’s offensive background helping him around the corner, as Sherman used to do. Running the same routes he’s currently advocating, Woolen was able to recognize a split second earlier that the receiver might be breaking.
But by looking at his hands, no one would have guessed that Woolen was a former buyer.
“When we first got here at the rookie mini-camp and went through OTAs and stuff, he didn’t catch a cold in Alaska,” Hurtt said. “It was tough. He was dropping everything, and I’m sitting here staring at the movie like, ‘This damn man has overflowing’.”
Woolen believes one of the reasons she’s made such a splash since college is that the NFL study week gives her more time to improve her game than when she juggles between school and football. The work he does on hand is a perfect example.
Woolen began joining Seahawks receivers in her post-training routines, catching soccer balls thrown from a Jugs machine and tennis balls bouncing off the wall. He also developed a routine with #3 quarterback Sean Mannion, asking him to throw a pass as he rushed back to the defensive group between each game in practice.
Woolen’s six interceptions are four more than he took a corner in 20 college games. He thanked Mannion after each one.
“He drew a circle,” Hurtt said of Woolen. “It’s not just talent, it’s work ethic.”
Having physical tools is one thing. Sherman said it’s another to use them all at the real moment when a corner has to decide in less than a second whether to choose safe play or big game.
Woolen followed suit in Week 5 of the New Orleans Saints.
Seattle’s defensive call to a second and 14 games in the third quarter did not provide him with any safety assistance at the top, meaning Woolen’s first responsibility was to protect the deep ball. In this case, the cushion a corner must give the receiver often leaves him vulnerable to an exit route. But when Tre’Quan Smith swerved off the line and headed for the sideline 15 yards later, Woolen got there in time to pick up the ball.
“Being able to keep the deep ball where he’s in a position to do that and have the rhythm and intuition to come back and jump that course, that’s a big deal,” Carroll said. “He had bad luck. It wasn’t what he expected. He just played the route and was on the road and put his foot on the ground and came back and made a terrific catch with a guy who was going against him.” ..
“I’ve been coaching the minors for a million years. If I could find coverage where a man could keep deep balls and their way out, I’d call him anytime. There’s no such thing.”
Sherman cited this intervention as an example of how Woolen uses more than just her physical attributes, including situational awareness, route recognition, and courage, to make plays.
“He doesn’t think about the downside of it, so there’s no hesitation,” Sherman said. “He just believes what he sees and that’s really great. That’s the hard part of the league. That’s what separates good guys from great players and Hall of Famers, this shyness, ‘Hey, they could have done it.’ … But if you never think about this doubt, you believe what you see, you put your feet on the ground and you go.”
While Woolen is the lead in what appears to be the Seahawks’ best draft class in a decade, he has a higher chance than New York Jets favorite Sauce Gardner for the Defensive Rookie of the Year Award. Gardner led the NFL with 16 passes defended, while Woolen finished third with 13 passes.
But as Woolen has shown, he can lay the groundwork in haste.
“She’s grown a lot since OTAs and mini-camp and then boot camp; she’s made a lot of big strides,” Sherman said. “Everything you can hope for in terms of his development and evolution, mentally and physically, and in terms of his development as a corner in the National Football League.”