Lofa Tatupu leaves snippets of criticism lying around his house like a trail of motivational breadcrumbs. The Seahawks' middle linebacker scatters negative newspaper articles and college rejection letters all around so he can scan for "too small" while he's brushing his teeth and read "too slow" when he opens the fridge.

"I let my critics know that I appreciate them," Tatupu said.

Never short on doubters, but always short on size. That's the story of Lofa Tatupu's life.

That's why all those schools, including not-so mighty New Hampshire, decided Tatupu wouldn't fit. That's why critics deemed Pete Carroll crazy for securing Tatupu's transfer from Maine to USC. And that's why, when the Seahawks took Tatupu with the 45th pick in this year's draft, "reach" became the operative term for his selection.

Size matters in the NFL. Speed matters in the NFL. And here's the problem for a guy like Tatupu: his game is based on instinct, on getting to the ball as if his helmet comes with a navigation system, on being in the right place so often at the right time that it can't be shrugged off as coincidence.

Former Seahawks coach Chuck Knox said of the instinct, "football players make football plays in football games." It's a knack that pushed Tatupu right into the Seahawks' starting lineup. And it can't be quantified.

"If you didn't know his name or any of that other stuff, and you just said, 'Okay, watch number 51,' " Seahawks Coach Mike Holmgren said. "You'd look at the film and go, 'He's really good.' Well, yeah, but he's only 5-2, and he weighs 130 pounds. Then you'd go, 'That's probably not tall enough or big enough, but gee whiz, he can play football.

"I know what I saw. So you might take the shot. You might take the chance."

The Seahawks did. And Holmgren watched Tatupu in their first minicamp this spring, watched No. 51 -- who stands 5-feet-11 and weighs 226 pounds -- play middle linebacker with a savvy that far exceeded his age and experience.

Holmgren watched Tatupu, and he smiled the smile of a man who sees something he believes others may have missed.

He said: "I'm pretty sure I'm going to like this."

So here they are, same old Seahawks no longer, at least three games into this season. The Seahawks are 2-1 heading into their game at Washington this weekend. Tatupu has recorded 14 tackles, sacked Michael Vick and taken hold of a position that's never been stabilized since Holmgren took over in 1999.

And the defense that ranked in the bottom third of the league last year has a new look, a new attitude and a new middle linebacker who isn't surprised that the doubts continue.

"That's human nature," Tatupu said. "Some root for the underdog and a lot like to bash him. So here's what I do. I use 'em to help motivate me."

What Tatupu is doing is not easy, even if his pedigree suggests a career head start. His father, Mosi Tatupu, played fullback and special teams in the NFL, but he never had to do what the Seahawks are asking of his son this season.

The middle linebacker in the Seahawks' defense makes all the defensive calls. So Tatupu has to know his assignments and everybody else's. On a typical play, Tatupu said he has to run through 12 checks and move his teammates like chess pieces based on what he sees.

"What he does is super hard," fellow linebacker Isaiah Kacyvenski said. "You don't see middle linebackers started as rookies that much because there's so much to do. That's why he's the X-factor."

If Tatupu's wrong, as he was on a goal-line check in the Seahawks' second game against the Atlanta Falcons, he gets flattened, the play makes "SportsCenter" and Mosi is on the phone.

"He called after that game," Tatupu said, "and he goes, 'Hey, you made "SportsCenter.' " They showed the sack early, and then they showed you on your back.' "

This season will be a learning experience for Tatupu. He acknowledges as much.

Like the time he introduced himself to Vick, his idol, gushing like a star-struck fan in the middle of the second quarter.

Or the time he was supposed to move defensive tackle Craig Terrill head up on the guard, didn't make the check and watched Terrill get flattened. The next time they huddled, Terrill approached Tatupu.

" 'Hey, Lofa, was there any chance that might have been a check G?' " Tatupu recalled. " 'Let's try to get that from now on.' "

Or the time the Seahawks' defensive starters were supposed to be introduced before a "Monday Night Football" preseason game against the Dallas Cowboys.

Tatupu ran on the field with the offense before someone alerted him that his presence was required in the tunnel. He had to use a swim move past defensive tackle Chuck Darby as he tried to get back inside.

"We love making fun of him about that," Kacyvenski said. "That's the best rookie mix-up I've ever heard."

Tatupu will have to learn quickly this season if the Seahawks are going to make the playoffs for the third straight season. Size notwithstanding, he believes he's up to it.

The ideal finish?

"Super Bowl," Tatupu said, offering a shrug. "This is a new team. We set a standard. That's what we've been talking about lately -- living up to that standard. We showed that we're capable of playing a certain way. It would be upsetting to have any setbacks."

Lofa Tatupu was considered too small (5-11, 226) to play middle linebacker, but Seattle Coach Mike Holmgren took a chance: "I know what I saw."