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Originally published Thursday, January 13, 2011 at 10:01 PM

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Steve Kelley

If you like Russell Okung now, wait until he's healthy

Seahawks' rookie offensive tackle is "surviving," playing on sore ankles.

Seattle Times staff columnist

RENTON — Every time Russell Okung pushes off his ankles, the shock waves shoot up both legs.

Imagine sticking your wet toes into an electrical outlet and you get an idea how much pain Okung feels every time he throws himself into a block, or hunkers down to pass-protect.

Okung, the legitimate heir to Walter Jones' left tackle position, the Seahawks' first pick in last April's draft, the sixth pick overall, has played his entire rookie season in pain.

He has played one of the most demanding positions in sports, gone man-to-man against rush ends like Chicago's Julius Peppers, Atlanta's John Abraham and San Francisco's Justin Smith, with both ankles throbbing and swelling and limiting his mobility.

"Playing the premier position on the offensive line, he rolled not one, but both ankles. It sucks that he got hurt," Hawks right tackle Sean Locklear said after Thursday's practice. "For him the pain's been week-to-week, game-to-game.

"But he's come a long ways. He's gotten a lot better. At first he was shaky. He had a lot to learn. I can't imagine myself starting as a rookie at left tackle."

Finding a left tackle was one of the most important reconstruction projects for the Seahawks' new regime.

Locklear and Ray Willis, who had moved uncomfortably between left and right tackle the past few years, were told they would move permanently to right tackle, and the search began for the best facsimile of Jones.

Drafting Okung was the right call. But it seems he's lived a haunted life since draft day.

Because he held out, he missed the early days of camp, the important tutoring and technique days before the games began. Then he injured his right ankle in August and missed the first three regular-season games. Then he injured the other ankle in his third NFL start.

When he left the practice field Thursday, Okung still noticeably was favoring his left ankle.

"He's an unbelievably tough guy," Oklahoma State strength and conditioning coach Joel Tudman said by phone Thursday. "He doesn't even like talking about his injuries.

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"When I talk with him on the phone he'll rarely admit that he's hurting, even though I know he is. I ask him how he's doing and he'll say, 'I'm pretty good.' So in those times when he does tell me he's sore, I know he's really hurting."

Tudman recalled a play in last year's Cotton Bowl against Mississippi when a lineman rolled up on Okung's knee, the knee buckled and it looked as if Okung would miss the rest of the game.

"He just had them tape it up and came back full speed, 100 miles an hour," Tudman said. "That's how tough he is."

Okung, who will meet Peppers again on Sunday in the NFC Divisional Playoff game at Chicago, hobbled off the field late in the first half of the win over St. Louis for the NFC West title. He had reinjured his left ankle, and his return looked questionable.

But he came back, protected quarterback Charlie Whitehurst and opened enough holes that the Seahawks were able to control the ball.

"He's going to be a terrific football player, and he's going to bank on all of these (hard) times," Hawks coach Pete Carroll said. "He just hasn't had enough healthy time out there to really feel great about anything.

"So many plays, you're digging, when you're a big man like that. And when you're hurt, you have to compensate. He's had to compensate at times, and I think it threw him out of whack during the season some. He hasn't been right. He's just surviving right now. He's doing a great job at that. I have no qualms about that. I think he's doing a very good job under the circumstances."

Imagine Okung's frustration. He came here understanding the demands the Hawks would place on him. He heard the comparisons to Jones. He understood the caliber of pass-rushers he was going to face.

And then came the injuries and every day, every practice, since mid-August, Okung hasn't felt right. He's had to be better than he's ever been, while feeling worse than he's ever felt.

"He just has to suck it up and go through it, which he's doing," Carroll said. "He doesn't complain. Gets treated. Does everything he's supposed to do. But he's just hurt. No sob stories here. It's just what is."

A rookie, especially a rookie playing a position as important as left tackle, has so much to process. He has to make decisions faster than he's ever made them. Against the clock, he has to think like a scientist, concentrate on leverage and force.

It's a heavy load.

"I think last week's game was the first time I've seen him smile," offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates said. "There's a lot of pressure on a rookie playing left tackle and he takes his job pretty serious."

Tudman saw Okung handle the very best pass rushers in the Big 12 — Texas A&M's Von Miller, Sergio Kindle of Texas. And he has a good idea of what the Seahawks and their offense and their fans can expect from Okung.

"The world really hasn't seen him yet," Tudman said. "He's playing with bad wheels and he keeps telling me, 'Wait 'til I get healed.' He's very spiritual, and he's a very, very, very confident person."

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com.

More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists

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About Steve Kelley

Steve Kelley covers all sports, putting his spin on matters involving both the home team and the nation.
skelley@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2176

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