Pounded on the road by the Rams’ Aaron Donald and the Packers B.J. Raji, Drew Nowak survived a cruel baptism to get his first home start Sunday against the Bears.
When the Seattle Seahawks released Lemuel Jeanpierre in the first round of preseason cuts, third-year lineman Drew Nowak became the go-to guy at center, despite having never played the position before. After an 0-2 start, Nowak admits that it’s a long way to the top if he wants to block and roll.
Nowak certainly didn’t get the easiest match-ups for his first two weeks as an offensive lineman. His first week against the Rams squared him off against Pro Bowler and 2014 defensive rookie of the year Aaron Donald, while week two put him face to face with the 337-pound B.J. Raji.
Still, Nowak didn’t lament the difficulty of his first opponents, instead characterizing those match-ups as an important baptism by fire.
“I think every guy I get a chance to play against is going to be great,” said Nowak. “It’s going to be a challenge every week to play against the nose tackles. I know the guys coming up this week and in the weeks to come are going to give me a challenge as well, so I just have to play better, and everything will come together.”
Center is one of the most mentally taxing positions in the game. Only the quarterback has a greater responsibility, but the center bears the brunt of attempting to communicate blocking assignments to the men on either side of him. Nowak felt Sunday’s loss to Green Bay represented an improvement from his performance in St. Louis.
“The communication factor went up immensely from week one to week two, with my comfort making the calls,” he said. “The speed was better, I felt like it was a big jump, and if I just keeping making those jumps, by the time we get to the middle part of the season we’ll be just fine.”
Nowak is the sort of guy you want to see succeed. Humble, hardworking and honest, the six-foot-two, 292-pounder is hoping to make the most of his opportunity in Seattle, adopting the chip-on-the-shoulder vibe that the front office loves to cultivate.
“I think we have a blue-collar atmosphere,” said Nowak. “They give guys opportunities, whether you were drafted in the first round or an undrafted guy. I think we have that mentality where if you come in and work hard and do the right things, you’re going to get that opportunity. That’s why I’m here, I think. I’m trying to make the best of the opportunity that (Hawks GM John Schneider) gave me, and so far it’s worked out.”
Not to say that Nowak is some lumberjack who wandered from the forest into camp one day (though you’d be forgiven for thinking so due to the beard). Nowak was the 2011 Mid-American Conference defensive player of the year.
Coach Pete Carroll believes defensive linemen can often be turned into viable O-linemen.
“In college, you’re going to put your better athletes on defense, the guys that move the best,” said Carroll. “A lot of the guys that weren’t quite equipped to be an NFL defensive lineman get an opportunity to see if they can make something special out of themselves. This is not a new thought, just not everybody believes in doing it.”
QB Russell Wilson had praise for Nowak’s attempted metamorphosis.
“I think Drew is doing a phenomenal job,” said Wilson. “He’s really stepped up to the challenge. He’s passionate about it — that’s the most important thing. I’m really excited for Drew and for what he’s done for us. He’s getting better every week. It makes the game fun.”
Passion won’t block a 300-pound tackle, though. For that, Nowak is taking his cues from line coach Tom Cable.
“Cable has been great for me,” Nowak said. “He’s tough on me, but I need it. I need those constant reminders of your steps, the communication, everything that I haven’t been accustomed to.”
Whether the team’s confidence in Nowak is misplaced, there seems little doubt that the 25-year-old is game. Nowak is living his dream of being an NFL starter. A highlight was last week, when the Green Bay-area native played in the stadium where he watched the Packers as a boy.
“It was a blast,” said Nowak of Lambeau Field. “It sucked that we lost. It was a tough game. But being able to see my family there and to have my family be a part of it, and playing in a stadium that I grew up watching and dreamed about playing in, it was an unbelievable experience.”
Still, Nowak seemed equally excited for his first regular-season game at the Clink.
“When they raise that 12 flag before the game, that’s a really special moment,” he said. “Every time that happens I get chills. I see that and I know it’s time to get going.”