This year, Hawks have needed the young guys

Luke Willson catches the winning touchdown against the Carolina Panthers (Getty Images)Because the Seahawks won the Super Bowl last season, it is easy to forget that half of their roster is comprised of players with less than three years of experience.

Starters Russell Wilson, Bobby Wagner, Bruce Irvin, J.R. Sweezy and Jermaine Kearse are only in their third seasons, and 21 more of the 53 players on the roster have not yet played three seasons. Eleven others are in just their fourth seasons.

The Seahawks barely used any of their rookies in 2013, relying largely on veterans — and that’s a loose term, considering some of them had just one or two years of experience.

So, coming into this season, the Hawks in effect had almost two full rookie classes. And the questions were: Would any of the remaining 2013 rookies step up to replace departed free agents and would the 2014 class redshirt as most of the 2013 class did?

Due to injuries and one big trade, the answers are yes and no, as many young players have stepped forward in recent weeks.

The young players were an especially big factor in the 13-9 win over Carolina on Sunday.

Tight end Luke Willson, starting a third time for injured Zach Miller a week after Willson sat out with a groin injury, had an up-and-down game. He had a holding penalty and also once again let a defender disrupt a catch at the goal line, but he did some nice blocking and finished strong as he caught the winning 23-yard touchdown pass from Wilson.

He still doesn’t look like a No. 1 tight end for the future, but he is developing into a decent second option. Since Miller has been out, he has six catches for 62 yards in three starts.

“It was great that he had the opportunity to make the play and came through for a big catch,” coach Pete Carroll said after the game. “Luke has done a nice job stepping in for Zach. It’s hard to take a guy who’s such a stellar pro in Zach and miss him for this time, but Luke has jumped at the opportunity and played first-rate football. We’re going to continue to go to him. He’s a really good player.”

Cooper Helfet, a third-year player in his first season on the active roster, has been a positive as the No. 2 tight end, too. He caught three passes for 61 yards and a touchdown at St. Louis, and he had a catch at Carolina — with a couple of others off target by Wilson.

Willson is just one of four players left from the Seahawks’ 2013 draft class, although they also have undrafted lineman Alvin Bailey and four new players in just their second years.

Willson and now injured defensive tackle Jordan Hill were the only 2013 draft picks playing fairly regularly until Sunday, when running back Christine Michael played for just the sixth time in 23 possible games and cornerback Tharold Simon finally played a full game for the first time.

Carroll said it was “really good to get (Michael) going. It’s good to get him in the mix and hopefully we will continue to be able to make good sense of how to mix those guys. It’s been adjusted a little bit because of (Robert Turbin’s) play at fullback so Christine has done a good job with the chances he’s (gotten). Hopefully he will get some more shots.”

As for the usually injured Simon, Carroll cracked, “He made it through the whole game. He was still in there, so that was good.”

Simon dropped an interception that was right in his arms, “but other than that he was very solid.”

Bailey, who played in 14 games as a rookie last year, also stepped in Sunday alternately for right guard J.R. Sweezy and left guard James Carpenter.

Among the rookies, right tackle Justin Britt has started every game, but the others had gotten sporadic playing time.

With Percy Harvin gone, there is now room for receivers Paul Richardson and Kevin Norwood, and both have shown they are ready to contribute this season. Each caught a couple of passes against the Panthers, and each made a play on the winning drive in the final four minutes.

“We feel very confident in those kids,” Carroll said. “They’ve really earned it by the way they’ve worked. They’ve really done a great job, so it’s a big positive for us.”

Another rookie who showed well is linebacker Kevin Pierre-Louis, who stepped in for an injured Malcolm Smith.

“He did really well. He had four plays that really stood out,” Carroll said. “He’s really fast. He showed it in pursuit. He tackled a guy in a screen, running through on a blitz, had a couple of other plays just covering ground. He really looked exciting for us to see. He’s comfortable with the scheme. He will get a ton better, but he did very, very well. If Malcolm couldn’t play, Kevin would have a chance to play a lot of football for us.”

The Seahawks promoted linebacker L.J. Fort on Wednesday, which seems to be a sign that Smith might not play Sunday against the Oakland Raiders. K.J. Wright indicated he will move from middle linebacker to outside, and rookie Brock Coyle will start in the middle. But Pierre-Louis figures to play a lot on passing downs.

Carroll was quick to point out the contributions of the young players to his team Monday.

“It really was a point of emphasis in our team meeting today that a lot of young guys have come through and done a really nice job,” he said. “It’s really fallen into the formula that we’ve always looked to: You play your young guys early and by midseason they’re playing like regulars.

“As we turn the corner here, Game 8, we will have a lot of young guys that have played. They’ve been called on to play frontline stuff and so, as we go down the stretch, they will be a big factor in helping us.”

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