Monday, August 20, 2007

By Nick Wagoner
Senior Writer

For the better part of the preseason, one of the lingering developing battles on the depth chart was at the running back position. With starter Steven Jackson and rookie Brian Leonard firmly entrenched in the top two spots, many assumed that the battle would come down to a fight for the third running back spot.

Apparently, though, that is not the case.

“There’s a good battle going on there for a back that’s going to make our roster at probably really more the 4 spot,” coach Scott Linehan said.

In other words, there are three backs who are safe and sound and the third one is Travis Minor. Quietly, Minor has solidified his spot on the roster with another solid camp in what has been a solid six-year NFL career.

“Travis has done extremely well,” Linehan said. “We know exactly what Travis can bring to the table as a tailback. We know he can start a game or two if we needed him to, we know he brings a lot of value on third down being that he has played most of the protections. Where he really excels is on special teams. He’s a quiet, no nonsense guy that really does his job every day.”

Minor has made a living in the league as a solid backup capable of filling in as a spot starter at tailback or working in the various areas of special teams. It was in that phase of the game that Minor first caught Linehan’s eye when the two were in Miami together.

For the Dolphins, Minor was a third back, who made his greatest impact on special teams. He was the captain of that unit and handled most of the calls for the punt team and was always in an important blocking position on the return teams.

It was a no brainer, then, for Linehan to bring Minor to St. Louis when the opportunity presented itself. Minor signed with the Rams quickly in free agency and has become an instant mainstay on special teams.

In this preseason, Minor has moved through camp with little to no fanfare and done everything asked of him along the way. In the preseason opener against Minnesota, Minor got three carries for 7 yards and didn’t get a carry against the Chargers.

Some interpreted that to mean his job might be in danger. But Linehan said it’s quite the opposite as Minor is on solid ground.

“I’m just here to do whatever the coaches ask me to do,” Minor said. “I know what my role is to be able to play on special teams and to come in if there are ever situations in the game where I am needed on the field and I can get out there and be capable. That’s the way I approach it. I am just grinding ahead and working like everybody else.”

If indeed Minor is secure in his spot and the Rams intend to keep a fourth running back, that means the competition will come down to a battle between Kay Jay Harris and Rich Alexis.

The Rams took a long, hard look at Alexis against the Chargers after Harris made a solid impression against the Vikings.

While Minor is more of a speedy, change of pace type back, Alexis and Harris provided different types of looks.

Harris is a bigger, more powerful back, but doesn’t have the speed of Minor. Alexis falls somewhere in between with good speed and power, but doesn’t excel in either category.

Alexis has been a bit of a surprise in this preseason for the coaching staff and has consistently earned praise from position coach Wayne Moses. Although he didn’t start playing football until he was a senior at Pope John Paul II High in Coral Springs, Fla., Alexis did enough to get noticed by the University of Washington.

After a four-year career with the Huskies, Alexis signed as an undrafted free agent with Jacksonville. He spent most of the next two seasons on the practice squad, appearing in three games in 2005 and 2006.

The Rams signed Alexis on Dec. 14 of last year, giving him a bit of a leg up on understanding the system heading into this camp.

Now, Alexis is doing what he can to make an impression and land back on the active roster.

“I am just trying to go out there and make the best of every opportunity I have,” Alexis said. “I try to get on every team possible to show the coaches I can play special teams and if they want me to go out there and I get a chance to go out there and run the ball or pass protect or whatever it is, it will be a bonus for me.”

In the preseason, Alexis has carried 12 times for 36 yards, an average of 3 yards per attempt. Harris has three carries for 25 yards.

Since the third preseason game is the game in which the starters play the most time, the opportunities for Harris, Alexis and even John David Washington will likely be limited against Oakland.

But the final preseason contest against Kansas City should provide plenty of chances. Assuming the Rams do keep four tailbacks, it stands to reason that special teams contributions will play a big part in determining who gets the last spot, but Linehan said he wants running backs who can run first and do the rest second.

“They can certainly make an impact on our special teams but they have to go out and make our team as a back and be able to show they can go out and do that,” Linehan said. “So we are trying to give them all as many looks as we can in situations that we can.”