RENTON, Wash. – Pete Carroll has his first dilemma with the Seahawks, and his return to the NFL hasn't even started for real yet.
Sixth-overall draft pick Russell Okung has a high right ankle sprain, putting the key position of left tackle in flux for Seattle heading into the regular season.
Carroll announced after Tuesday's practice he is holding out hope that the hand-picked replacement for retired All-Pro Walter Jones can play in the Sept. 12 opener against San Francisco. But the Seahawks are pushing ahead with alternate plans of having Mansfield Wrotto, a backup guard, or recuperating Chester Pitts protect quarterback Matt Hasselbeck's blind side to begin the season.
Wrotto will start Saturday's third preseason game at Minnesota.
Okung, the 6-foot-5, 315-pound brick wall from Oklahoma State to whom Seattle guaranteed more than $29 million this month, sprained his ankle on the first play of Saturday night's exhibition against Green Bay when linemate Ben Hamilton tripped him. He stayed in to finish the three-and-out series, then hobbled into the locker room — and into weeks of rehabilitation.
"I was kind of hoping it wasn't, but it is," Carroll said of Okung's high ankle sprain, which sometimes involves a recovery time of up to two months. "It's not the worst one we've ever seen. It's kind of a moderate one. That's why we're holding out hope that he can come back quickly from it.
"But those can be, you know, difficult. We'll have to see how it goes with him."
Seattle is already without backup tackle Ray Willis for an indefinite time because of knee surgery.
Carroll said general manager John Schneider is working every day to perhaps find a replacement from outside.
Reminded that game-ready NFL left tackles don't just walk down the street available each day, the coach chuckled ruefully and said, "Yeah."
"I mean, we're always competing every day to find guys, to help our roster," Carroll said. "John's looking every day to see what's going on, who's available and all that. So we'll continue to look."
Wrotto was again at left tackle during Tuesday's practice. Pitts, the former Houston Texan added this offseason as a free agent, came off the physically-unable-to-perform list and was doing leg strengthening drills with a trainer — at one point resisting the pull of a rolling, motorized cart to which he was strapped — while on a side field Tuesday. He had microfracture knee surgery 10 months ago.
Carroll is hoping Pitts can practice at left tackle this week, and he named him a candidate to start at left tackle in Week One.
"It's a race to the opener for that," Carroll said of Pitts' availability.
Okung sprained the same ankle in Oklahoma State's opener against Georgia last season but missed only a few plays. Okung started all 13 games last season, though the ankle continued to bother him late into the year.
"We don't know him in terms of injuries. I don't think he's ever missed a game before, or even practice. So he doesn't have any experience of having to come back from something," Carroll said. "We'll figure that out as we go. His attitude is fantastic as far as the rehab process goes."
After Okung missed the first eight days of training camp because of a contract impasse, the Seahawks gave him a six-year deal earlier this month that has a maximum value of $58 million.
Saturday, Carroll said it would be "a big loss if he can't come back. We put a lot of time and effort to get this guy right and he's done everything we've asked of him."
For a point of reference at the same position, Seattle was without fill-in left tackle Sean Locklear for six games last season because of a high ankle sprain.
Locklear is now starting on the right side, and Carroll said Locklear will not be moving to the left while Okung is out.