RENTON, Wash. (AP) Despite an excellent career at the University of Washington, Jermaine Kearse was little more than an afterthought when he joined the Seattle Seahawks as an undrafted free agent last season.
Now in his second season with the team, Kearse is becoming a vital piece of the Seahawks' success.
Kearse left Washington as the school's No. 2 leading receiver all time in catches (180), yards (2,871) and touchdowns (29), but still didn't hear his name called during last year's draft. A native of Lakewood, Wash., Kearse latched on with the local NFL team, signing as an undrafted free agent.
After being released at the end of training camp, Kearse was signed to Seattle's practice squad. By midseason, he had been brought up to the team's active roster and began making an impression on special teams.
But it was his progression this offseason that began to turn heads.
Kearse underwent corrective eye surgery to shed contacts that occasionally caused problems tracking the football. It's helped him be more consistent making catches downfield.
"That is definitely where it improved the most," Kearse said. "I kind of made the same catches in college, but it's definitely helped a lot better tracking the ball and seeing the ball in the air."
Through offseason workouts and training camp, Kearse was showing up daily while making tough catches in practice. It didn't take long for him to earn the trust of his quarterback.
"Jermaine is the guy that I told you guys about early in the season," Russell Wilson said. "I knew that he was going to have a great season just by his effort, just by his knowledge of the game.
"His skill level is unbelievable. He's got great hands, gets off on releases really well in terms of press coverage. He's just a great football player."
Kearse has continued to make big plays despite limited opportunities so far this season. Kearse caught the go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter of Seattle's season-opening win over the Carolina Panthers.
Last week against the Indianapolis Colts, Kearse blocked a punt out of the end zone for a safety and hauled in a 28-yard touchdown pass from Wilson. Kearse's touchdown was one of just two scored by Seattle despite six trips inside the Colts 30-yard line last week.
He's tied with Zach Miller and Sidney Rice for the team lead in touchdown catches with two despite having just four catches for 94 yards in five games this season. He's also served as the team's primary returner on kickoffs.
Tennessee Titans quarterback Jake Locker isn't surprised by Kearse's success this season with the Seahawks. Locker played with Kearse for three seasons at Washington and was Locker's favorite target.
"In college, we threw the ball downfield to him quite a bit and he had a really good ability to kind of use his body and use leverage to always go up and come down with the ball," Locker said.
"He could be covered, he could be open, it didn't really matter. He found ways to come down with the deep ball."
Those potent plays are forcing the coaching staff to get him more involved in the offense. He's averaging more than 20 yards a catch this season and has been the most successful of Seattle's receivers at making plays down the field.
"We're confident in him. We need more opportunities to him," coach Pete Carroll said. "He's a very good route runner. He's a terrific guy on the deep ball and he's one of our fastest guys. We're going to continue to expect that he'll be more of a factor. He's earned that."
Notes: LB Bobby Wagner (ankle), RB Spencer Ware (ankle), TE Zach Miller (hamstring) and T Breno Giacomini (knee) missed practice again on Thursday. ... CB Walter Thurmond (knee), DE Michael Bennett (quadriceps) and RB Marshawn Lynch (non-injury) returned to full participation after being held out of practice on Wednesday. ... CB Jeremy Lane was limited (hamstring).