Ryan Kerrigan received special attention during Tuesday's practice because that's how important he is to the Washington Redskins.
When most of the team was practicing kickoff coverage, the Redskins' first-round pick and linebackers coach Lou Spanos relocated to a side field. For at least 10 minutes, Spanos tutored Kerrigan about a subject he must master as quickly as possible: covering receivers from his new outside linebacker position.
Kerrigan, a defensive end in college, moved slowly and deliberately through the lesson, processing information as he went. The concepts appeared a bit foreign to him, kind of like the feeling of driving a car for the first time.
You have to adjust the steering wheel, fix the mirrors and slide the seat back in order to get comfortable at the controls. For Kerrigan, settling into the linebacker spot is a work in progress that will be on display Friday night in the Redskins' preseason opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
"It's going to be different, but that's part of it," Kerrigan said. "I knew that coming in, and I'm ready for it."
The 16th-overall pick in April's draft is, in theory, a cornerstone of the Redskins' 3-4 defense. But he's not there yet.
Coach Mike Shanahan and defensive coordinator Jim Haslett project him to be a dynamic pass rusher who can balance the pressure provided from the other side by Pro Bowl linebacker Brian Orakpo. They believe a successful 3-4 defense needs that balance, and there's plenty of evidence league-wide to back that up.
Kerrigan, however, is at a significant disadvantage. Not only did he lose valuable offseason practice time because of the lockout, he also missed parts of 14 training camp practices because of a bone bruise in his right knee that he suffered on the first day.
He's playing catch-up now, and the matter is urgent. The Redskins begin the regular season one month from Thursday. Haslett said Wednesday that he "wouldn't be surprised" if Kerrigan begins the season on the second-string.
"Right now, you can't put him in too many places but enough where he starts getting back into football shape and feeling comfortable with our defense," Shanahan said.
Kerrigan returned to team drills Monday, but he hasn't played at top speed. It's clear that he's still learning on the fly, as expected. He's trying to master coverage responsibilities and rushing the passer from a standing position instead of a three-point stance.
During Tuesday's practice, one coach chastised Kerrigan after he turned to look toward the backfield and let tight end Logan Paulsen get out of reach for a touchdown catch.
The offense ran the same play on the next snap, and Kerrigan stayed close enough to Paulsen to bat the ball down.
"Ryan is a very intelligent kid who picks things up fast," Haslett said. "Is it going to be easy for him? No. Is he going to make some mistakes? Yes. We know that. But I think the transition he's made so far to this point with a short amount of time has been pretty good."
Orakpo knows exactly what Kerrigan is going through. He played defensive end at Texas before the Redskins drafted him in the first round in 2009 and converted him to strongside linebacker in their 4-3 scheme, which Shanahan changed last season.
Orakpo has made the Pro Bowl in each of his first two seasons, but he still hasn't mastered his new position.
"He's used to that three-point stance and used to just going and coming off the edge, so he has to be patient," Orakpo said. "In my first year playing backer for the first time, it was kind of difficult playing in space. You've got different reads. So he's just got to be patient and do what he's been doing throughout the week."
That's what Kerrigan plans to do Friday. He realizes that game experience is the best way to learn, even if the early results are not pretty.
"I can't wait to get out there and play," he said. "I'm just going to try not to get too caught up in everything and play my game."
Notes: Tight end Chris Cooley (left knee) and guard Artis Hicks (concussion) will not play against Pittsburgh, Shanahan said. Quarterback John Beck (groin) probably won't play, but Shanahan said he hasn't decided yet.... The Redskins released former Virginia quarterback Marc Verica and signed three-year veteran quarterback Matt Gutierrez.
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