Tuesday, August 29, 2006

By Nick Wagoner
Senior Writer

According to the roster, Oshiomogho Atogwe is entering his second season as an NFL safety.

Why, then, does it seem like Atogwe is just beginning his rookie season? After an offseason that saw the Rams spend money to upgrade nearly every other position on the defense, there was nothing done to make a move at free safety.

That’s because new coach Scott Linehan and defensive coordinator Jim Haslett believed they had the guy they needed to take over a position that was nothing less than a revolving door for the past two seasons.

That player is Atogwe. That’s right, the same Atogwe who might as well not have been on the roster with the exception of maybe two or three weeks in 2005.

“A lot of good came out of last year,” Atogwe said. “It taught me to be more professional at this game, first and foremost. (It taught me to) play every play like it's your last play.”

Atogwe’s rookie season wasn’t that much different from many rookie seasons. But, it’s safe to say it was a bit of a disappointment for a player who was a high third round choice in the NFL Draft. Even though he wasn’t necessarily expected to be a starter, many thought he would be in on special teams.

After all, Atogwe was one of the top safeties taken in the draft. Perhaps he was at a disadvantage because of Stanford’s trimester system which cost him many practices and workouts in the offseason.

When the season began, Michael Hawthorne started at free safety and Atogwe was active for special teams. In the opener against San Francisco, Atogwe made a few mistakes on special teams.

Instantly, Atogwe found himself in the doghouse. He was inactive for three games and played in 13, with little of that action coming on defense. Things were so bad for Atogwe that he couldn’t play above Hawthorne, who was an unmitigated debacle at the position.

Even when Hawthorne finally fell out of favor, converted receiver Mike Furrey took over the starting job. It was a tough time for the rookie out of Stanford.

“One or two plays on special teams, and you're inactive,” Atogwe said. “You never know when you're going to get your next chance to play.”

Atogwe did get a chance finally in week 12 against Houston. There, he showed flashes of what could be by coming up with a big sack late in the game.

In the season finale against Dallas, Atogwe got his best opportunity and took advantage. He made three tackles and added a fumble recovery and an interception. By the end of the year, he had just five tackles with the sack, fumble recovery and interception and seven special teams tackles.

“It's a tough experience to go through, but it was also a needed experience,” Atogwe said. “The NFL is a tough game to play. You have to take your hills with your valleys. You have to keep rolling and pushing through it and keeping the faith.”

When the Rams made the move to bring in Linehan and Haslett, Atogwe got new life. He was about to get his first full season under his belt and he knew that he would at least get an opportunity to compete for a starting position.

Little did he know, though, that he would not only get a chance to compete, but he would start out as the leader for the vacant free safety job. The Rams informed Atogwe of his depth chart standing on the first day of the first minicamp.

“It takes faith to make a guy a starter who didn't get much experience as a rookie,” Atogwe said. “It definitely takes a lot of faith, but I feel it's not going to go unwarranted. I'm going to make some plays.”

Atogwe has done just that now that he has taken a hold of the starting job. He is expected to hold that job and start next to Corey Chavous in the secondary. Fakhir Brown and Travis Fisher will join them as starter in the defensive backfield with Tye Hill, Jerametrius Butler and DeJuan Groce helping at cornerback.

Behind Atogwe, the Rams have Dwaine Carpenter and Ron Bartell in competition. Jerome Carter seems safe in his spot as a backup to both Atogwe and Chavous.

So far, Atogwe has taken advantage of his opportunities. Aside from a coverage error in the preseason opener against Indianapolis, Atogwe has proved to be a more physical presence than many expected.

Atogwe slammed Kansas City receiver Samie Parker to the ground on the Rams’ 2 after a long completion in the third preseason game, a play demonstrating Atogwe’s physical approach to free safety.

“I think O.J.'s done outstanding,” Linehan said. “Free safety's like corner or quarterback. If they make a mistake, it's pretty obvious.”

That one mistake has been the only one to stand out for Atogwe so far and this time a single mistake won’t land him on the bench. For better or worse, the Rams might have finally found the answer to their free safety conundrum.

If nothing else, Atogwe can’t be worse than the likes of Hawthorne, Antuan Edwards, Tom Knight and Kwamie Lassiter, some of the players who have tried to fill the large shoes left by Aeneas Williams.

So far, all signs point to Atogwe being the guy that makes the revolving door at free safety come to a stop.

“He hasn't acted or looked like a guy that didn't play last year,” Linehan said. “He's maturing and he's improving every day.”