Seattle Seahawks right guard J.R. Sweezy has been changing positions his entire career, beginning with a move to the offensive line when he exceeded the weight limit for running backs as a 10-year-old in Mooresville’s youth league.
But Sweezy’s biggest move – and most important one – has stuck.
The former N.C. State defensive lineman is a key cog in the NFL’s top-ranked rushing attack and will start his second consecutive Super Bowl on Sunday against the New England Patriots.
Sweezy has gone from trying to sack Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson at practice when both starred at N.C. State, to trying to protect him.
And while Wilson is lauded for his competitive spirit, the coach responsible for Sweezy’s position switch said Sweezy is right there with Wilson.
“You’re talking about a driven guy, an ultra competitor. He’s one of the finest we have on our team,” Seattle offensive line coach Tom Cable said Wednesday. “Very tough, loves the challenge, loves the big matchup, and very driven to do things right.”
Sweezy was a linebacker and state heavyweight wrestling champ at Mooresville, and started his collegiate career as a defensive end. He was a defensive tackle his final three seasons in Raleigh, and was with the defensive linemen at the NFL scouting combine before the 2012 draft.
Cable had another spot in mind for Sweezy when he put him through a private workout at N.C. State.
Besides evaluating Sweezy’s footwork and physical skills, Cable wanted to see how receptive he would be to moving to offense.
Cable recalls Sweezy saying he’d do anything to play in the NFL, which is the response Cable was looking for.
“What did he have?” Cable said. “He answered the first question right.”
Cable successfully converted two defensive linemen to offensive linemen when he was an assistant at Cal. Tarik Glenn went on to protect Peyton Manning’s blind side at left tackle for nine seasons in Indianapolis, and Jeremy Newberry went to two Pro Bowls as a center for San Francisco.
Cable said he likes linemen who “know how to strain,” meaning they’re not afraid to put in the work necessary to stay in shape and sacrifice themselves in the trenches.
Sweezy’s wrestling background qualified him.
“I want that mentality,” Cable said. “That means you don’t usually see in my group a bunch of big, heavy guys, soft-body guys, (but) guys who are tight ends or D-linemen somewhere in their past.”
It was not an easy transition for Sweezy, a seventh-round pick who said Baltimore was the only other team that talked to him about shifting to offense.
“I really had to retrain my brain. Everything was opposite,” Sweezy said Wednesday during the Seahawks’ media session. “As a defensive player, I was constantly attacking and had that lean forward to get after people. As an offensive player, you do that you get beat. Just one quick move, they’re around you. It took me a while to learn how to sit back and see things.”
Sweezy spent a good portion of his rookie season camped out with Seattle assistant offensive line coach Pat Ruel.
“I was in his office every day until he kicked me out, trying to figure it out. I wanted to do it. I wanted to understand it. It frustrated me that I wasn’t understanding it,” Sweezy said. “So I just stayed on top of it until I finally did. Now that I’m doing it, I wish I’d been playing the position my whole life. I love it.”
Cable said the position switch wouldn’t have panned out without Sweezy’s willingness to work.
“He didn’t really have a stop button on how far he was willing to push. I think those characteristics kind of fit those other guys I’ve had in the past,” Cable said. “He was more than willing, which is probably the most important thing.”
Sweezy, who is 6-foot-5 and 298 pounds, split time as a rookie with John Moffitt before starting both of the Seahawks’ playoff games that season. He’s been a full-time starter ever since, helping the Seahawks set a franchise record this season with 2,762 rushing yards, the third-highest total in the NFL since 1985.
Seahawks defensive tackle Tony McDaniel, a nine-year veteran from Columbia, said Sweezy still looks the part of a run-stopper on defense.
“He looks more like a defensive lineman,” McDaniel said. “He’s a pretty physical kid.”
Sweezy is engaged to marry Gissell Suarez, whom he first dated in high school, on Feb. 21. The couple made sure to pick a date after the Super Bowl for their wedding.
Sweezy said he’s not sure where he and Gissell will spend their honeymoon. Maybe the Caribbean, maybe somewhere else warm.
He doesn’t seem to be sweating the details. After all, he’s shown an ability to adapt.
But his first order of business is winning a second ring for a franchise that saw greatness in him, albeit at a new position.
“They said I was a good defensive lineman, but they thought I could be a really good offensive lineman,” Sweezy said. “I just wanted the chance to make the best of my opportunity.”