RENTON -- If K.J. Wright was going to miss seven games this season due to injury, most people would have assumed a rookie would get the chance to take over the spot in his absence.
They wouldn't have assumed that rookie would be Austin Calitro.
The undrafted first-year player out of FCS Villanova has been given the reins to Seattle's weak-side linebacker position for at least this Sunday's game against the Carolina Panthers. Calitro will make his fourth start of the season against the Panthers as the Seahawks try to cover the loss of Wright for at least the next couple of weeks.
“Austin has done a nice job when he’s had his chances," head coach Pete Carroll said on Tuesday. "He’s still a young player so there’s stuff to learn and all but he’s done a nice job, particularly in the physical side of hitting and tackling and all.”
Calitro had the opportunity to go to Temple or UConn to play football at the FBS level, but elected to go to Villanova for the education and the chance to chase a championship. The 6-foot, 240-pound linebacker spent time with the New York Jets, San Francisco 49ers, Cleveland Browns and Seahawks in 2017 as part of their offseason or practice squad rosters. He re-signed with Seattle in June and earned a spot onto the team's active roster by performing well in training camp.
Calitro didn't spend any time on an active roster last season, so even though he has some limited NFL experience this is his first season of actual playing experience.
"It’s been fun," he said on Wednesday. "My role is definitely bigger than I thought it would be coming into this season but I think I was well-prepared for it. ... I didn’t expect it and it’s quite a surprise."
With Wright's knee injury forcing him to miss more time after a three-game stint returning to the lineup, the Seahawks will need someone to man the position in the interim. Griffin started the opener before being replaced by Calitro midway through the contest in Denver. Calitro would start the following week against the Chicago Bears before Mychal Kendricks assumed the job for the next two weeks.
Calitro took over once again when the NFL suspended Kendricks for his guilty plea to insider trading charges in September before joining the Seahawks. Wright then returned following the team's bye week before the knee issues again knocked him out of the lineup two weeks ago against the Rams in Los Angeles.
It's uncertain when Wright could return to the lineup. Carroll said on Tuesday that they don't know if down time alone will be enough to get Wright back on the field.
“We’re going to find out. We don’t know,” Carroll said.
Barkevious Mingo started last week's game against the Green Bay Packers only to be pulled in favor of Calitro after the opening drive of the game. Mingo had three less-than-ideal plays to begin the game and Calitro handled the duties the rest of the way at weak-side linebacker.
"You’ve got to go with the hot hand," defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. said. "Calitro made some plays and he was feeling it and I felt like in that style of play, his style of play fit to what they were doing – the open game, the runs they were trying to do, the passes across the middle and I felt like Calitro, that fit his style."
Calitro said it's been a boost to his confidence that the coaching staff trusts him to handle the job with Wright out.
"I think for me more than anything I’m glad I got the chance to play more than just middle linebacker and start to play a little weak-side and nickel," he said. "That’s the part of my game I’ve been trying to develop and I’m glad I’m finally getting a chance to show that in the games.
"In my time in the NFL I’ve been mostly a middle linebacker. … Just two different kind of mindsets. At (weak-side) you’re going to cover a little more and you’re going to cover tight ends and running backs a little more so for me it’s just trying to get my hands and eyes correct in that sense."
The Panthers will provide a significant mental test for Calitro. With the wide array of runs the Panthers deploy with Cam Newton at quarterback - read-option runs, veer-option runs, quarterback powers and isos and more - Calitro will be taxed mentally before then facing the additional challenge of actually getting the 6-foot-5, 245-pound Newton on the ground.
"I think they’re going to try to test us mentally," Calitro said. "They’re going to try to see if we’re assignment-sound with all the different option looks they can throw at us. They’re going to try to test our zones in pass coverage and I think if we all just do what we got to do and just do our jobs we’ve been focusing on all week, we’ll be fine."
Kendricks is still unable to return to the lineup for another two weeks as he serves out the remaining games of his suspension. He was allowed to return to practice with the team this week and he ramps back up into playing shape.
“It’s great for Mychal in particular;” Carroll said of his return to practice. “He needs to get going and doing some stuff that’s positive and all of that. He had a really good experience with us before. We loved him playing for us. He couldn’t wait to get back, we couldn’t wait to get him back. It’s going to take a couple of weeks to tune him back in but he’s really a well-rounded football player. He can do a lot of stuff. When he gets back we can suit him into the lineup and it will be fun to have him. I’m glad for him, for his sake, right now.”
But until Kendricks, or Wright, becomes available, Calitro is likely the guy for the job.
“We just have to understand it’s kind of a next man up,” middle linebacker Bobby Wagner said. “Everybody kind of knows I trust everybody that’s been in the position. Austin is in it right now. We have a lot of confidence in him."
Photo Credit: SEATTLE, WASHINGTON - NOVEMBER 04: Justin Coleman #28 and Austin Calitro #58 of the Seattle Seahawks react in the second quarter against the Los Angeles Chargers at CenturyLink Field on November 04, 2018 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)