BY KATHLEEN NELSON Posted: Friday, August 13, 2010 12:00 am

Craig Dahl will start at strong safety in place of James Butler on Saturday, when the Rams face the Minnesota Vikings in their first preseason game.

"Really?" Dahl said, then left the word hang in the air for 10 seconds before admitting that he was just messing around. After all, Dahl has been practicing with the first unit for a week, since Butler suffered a sprained medial collateral ligament. He is expected to be out for a few weeks.

Neither Dahl nor coach Steve Spagnuolo messes around, though, on the subject of Dahl's versatility.

"James had been the quarterback (on defense), but Craig knows that enough," Spagnuolo said. "He plays both safety spots. I know O.J. (Atogwe) feels comfortable with Craig back there, and I know the coaches do. So that's a bonus we have here."

Dahl's ability to play both strong and free safety served him well last year, when he replaced Butler and later Atogwe, at free safety.

"Whenever I get on the field and play, I'll take it," he said. "We have a great safety in O.J. and a great safety in James. I look at it as if I'm another great safety who can work in the mix where I can. I don't consider it a demotion when James and O.J. play and I don't."

Perhaps Dahl has an advantage over many of his Rams teammates, since he considers this his fourth year in Spagnuolo's system. He played two injury-riddled seasons at strong safety under Spagnuolo with the Giants, who signed Dahl as a free agent out of North Dakota State.

"I have plenty of notebooks with the same notes over and over again," he said. "But you understand the coaches' philosophy better every year."

Smith to play early

After two days of strong practices, tackle Jason Smith is likely to take the field with the starting unit Saturday. Smith, the No. 2 overall pick in 2009, has been working back slowly since suffering a stress fracture to the second toe of his right foot in June. Spagnuolo indicated Tuesday that Smith could sit out Saturday's game, but his performance in practice in the last two days have moved up the timetable.

"I'm hoping he can get some work early in the game," Spagnuolo said Thursday afternoon, after a shortened practice that was moved inside because of thunderstorms. "Every day you mess around with that particular injury, you ask after practice, 'How do you feel?' As long as it doesn't go backwards, hopefully we'll get him in there."

Spagnuolo added, however, that a pair of Smith's linemates projected as starters won't play: John Greco (pectoral muscle) and Jacob Bell (abdominal muscle).

Jackson to play little

Spagnuolo said that at best, running back Steven Jackson would play "not much. We'll see if at all." He added that the original plan was for Jackson to play against the Vikings, "but a lot of other guys will get a lot of opportunities."

Make room for kicker

Fullback Eric Butler was released to make room for a place kicker for Saturday night, whom the Rams hope to sign today. Kicker Josh Brown has been idle since Monday because of a hip injury. Butler had been sidelined for more than a week because of a shoulder injury.

Movie night

After canceling the second practice Wednesday, Spagnuolo took the Rams to see "Invictus," starring Matt Damon and Morgan Freeman, which tells the story of the South African rugby team's improbable run in the 1995 World Cup, following apartheid.

"It's amazing what an $8 movie will do," Spagnuolo said, noting that he had seen the movie on a flight over the summer. "They were fired up. There's a tremendous message. It's a team-oriented film but way more than athletics."

Ram-blings

Running back Ken Darby and DT Clifton Ryan returned to practice. ... Cardinals pitchers Blake Hawksworth and Mitchell Boggs watched the indoor practice, along with members of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestr