RENTON — Ben Burr-Kirven knows full well the path that awaits him as he moves across Lake Washington to continue hunting down ball carriers in the NFL.
No one in college football in 2018 did that better than Burr-Kirven, the University of Washington linebacker whose nose for the ball was akin to a bloodhound tracking his mark — a ruthless, hard-hitting, relentless bloodhound.
And yet, as always seems to be the case with Burr-Kirven, a new proving ground awaits, replete with the same ever-present questions about his size translating to the next level.
And so, in his conference call on Saturday, Burr-Kirven used phrases like, “Earn my keep,” “do the dirty work,” and “earn trust.” And seemed to do so with eagerness in his voice.
The Seahawks, who grabbed Burr-Kirven on Saturday in the fifth round, know exactly what they’re getting.
“We’re expecting you to be the tackling machine you’ve always been,’’ Pete Carroll told Burr-Kirven in the Seahawks’ phone call to inform him of the pending pick.
“I will be, Coach, don’t worry,’’ replied Burr-Kirven.
And yet, the guy who led the nation with 176 tackles (most since Luke Kuechly of Boston College had 191 in 2011), the guy who became the first Pac-12 player to ever win a major individual award (the Pat Tillman Defensive Player of the Year) and also be named the top Scholar-Athlete, the guy whose measurables (minus one) were off the charts at the NFL combine, still saw 141 players chosen ahead of him.
That’s largely because of one number: 6-0. As in, six feet tall, regarded as on the smallish side for a linebacker. The Seahawks are famous for spitting in the face of such artificial barriers, and they did so again.
Yet the Seahawks also have an established and decorated linebacking corps already in place. Burr-Kirven, in fact, has spent part of his offseason working out at Ford Sports in Bellevue with Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright, two longtime starters and stars.
Wagner shot some good-natured needling in Burr-Kirven’s direction Saturday, jumping on the introductory phone call to tell him, “I guess you enjoyed getting your ass kicked in workouts so much that you wanted to come and do it for them full-time.”
Burr-Kirven took it with a smile and later told reporters, “He’s a model for inside linebackers in the NFL. …. You couldn’t learn from better guys. They’re two of the best linebackers in the NFL. That’s pretty incredible.”
Mychal Kendricks will also be back in Seattle, as his legal issues allow, as well as Austin Calitro, among the nine linebackers already on the Seattle roster. And 54 picks earlier in this draft, the Seahawks selected Utah linebacker Cody Barton, who would thus seem to begin his career higher in the rookie pecking order.
That means the road to playing time for Burr-Kirven, at least initially, will be a difficult one. Just as when he came out of high school in Menlo Park, Calif., as a lightly regarded three-star recruit, only to eventually beat out the more celebrated Azeem Victor as the Huskies’ starting middle linebacker, Burr-Kirven finds himself fighting to make himself stand out.
“It just comes from being willing to come in there to compete and doing everything they ask,’’ he said. “A lot of that is going to start with special teams for me. I know that I’m a guy that is hopefully going to be a core special teamer for them and go down and do the dirty work, cover kicks, block, all that kind of stuff. I think that’s where it starts, and hopefully earn the trust, and then get a chance to show what I can do on defense, too.”
If that sounds familiar, it’s the same route that Burr-Kirven took with the Huskies — and remained on the punt and punt return units even after he forced his way into the starting job.
“I think that special teams give you an opportunity to show what kind of player you are and the sacrifice you’re willing to make for the team,” Burr-Kirven said.
That’s music to the ears of Carroll and GM John Schneider, who made many picks in this draft with an eye toward beefing up their special teams. In Burr-Kirven, they see even more: An instinctual tackler who conjured up a fond memory for Carroll.
“He reminded me so much of Lofa Tatupu,’’ Carroll said. “Lofa had this extraordinary knack for finding the football in unique ways. The way he fit in the running game, he was amazing. This is the way Ben plays.”
Here’s a prediction: The day will come when Burr-Kirven is a vital part of Seattle’s linebacking corps. He has a sixth sense that you simply can’t coach — “the unique quality of avoiding blocks to get to the ball,” in the words of Tyler Ramsey, the Seahawks’ area scout.
The Seahawks, the team that made Russell Wilson their cornerstone player, won’t let his size deter them from playing Burr-Kirven. Eventually, his skills will reveal themselves.
Burr-Kirven had the sixth-best 40 time among linebackers at the combine (4.56), and was first in the three-cone drill and 60-yard shuttle. He racked up a 3.69 GPA in UW’s cinema studies program (and someday would like to pursue a career in the film industry).
But mostly, Burr-Kirven is a Phi Beta Kappa in tackling, and that has a way of endearing one to coaches in the NFL. Do it enough, and the opportunities will come.
Will Burr-Kirven eventually have to shift of a hybrid safety role because of his size? Perhaps. But there are plenty of quality linebackers in the NFL within an inch or two and a few pounds of Burr-Kirven. Tatupu was also 6-feet — and he made three Pro Bowls.
Burr-Kirven “plays the game with the fatigue setting turned off,’’ according to NFL.com analyst Lance Zierlein.