Depth shouldn't be a problem this season
By Jim Thomas
Of the Post-Dispatch
Saturday, Aug. 21 2004

Every member of the Rams linebacker corps is old enough to vote. But just
barely. The average age of the 10 linebackers in camp is a mere 23.9 years.

"This is by far the youngest group that I have ever had," said linebackers
coach Joe Vitt, who began coaching in the NFL in 1979.

Among the projected starters, Pisa Tinoisamoa is entering just his second NFL
season, Robert Thomas his third and Tommy Polley, the oldest of the group at
age 26, his fourth.

The seven other linebackers have a combined 33 games of NFL experience. Except
for Brandon Spoon, that experience comes mostly from special teams play. As a
result, there's more teaching involved with this group than with an older, more
experienced unit. But as Vitt sees it, at least they're willing students.

"What makes it fun with this group is they want to be coached, and they want to
be good," Vitt said. "They show great attention to detail. They have
outstanding work habits. So that makes it exciting."

So does the fact that all 10 are athletic and run well. Depth at linebacker has
been a problem for the Rams since the move to St. Louis ... until this year.

The Rams will take six or seven linebackers into the regular season, and it
will be difficult to pare down this group. A couple of decent linebackers will
be out of a job by Sept. 5, the final cutdown day.

"We've got a great group of linebackers," Thomas said. "I hate to see a couple
of them leave when the time comes. ... Trev Faulk is behind me. He's definitely
a starter in this league, and he's making me work hard."

Apparently the depth is so good behind the starters, that one of them, Polley,
is being pushed for his starting job. Tony Newson, who played for Vitt in
Kansas City, was moved ahead of Polley at strongside linebacker after the
exhibition game with Chicago on Aug. 12. A tight hamstring has sidelined Newson
for the last couple of practices, which may give Polley an opening to regain
the job.

"Tommy right now is working his butt off to try to get back and regain the
status that he had here," Vitt said. "Tommy wasn't satisfied with his own play.
... I told Tommy: 'Pride is hard to swallow, but it will go down.'

"And there's two ways a player can handle this when he's demoted. He can sit
around and pout. Or he can work his butt off to try and get better, and regain
his spot. Tommy has chosen to do the latter. He's had his best practices since
I've been with him, including the (spring workouts), since the demotion."

Newson displays good footwork, speed, range, and change of direction. And
versatility is an asset - he can play all three linebacker positions.

At middle linebacker, Faulk appears entrenched as the top backup behind Thomas.

"Trev Faulk's had a great camp," Vitt said. "I've got to tell you this, when
Trev Faulk was coming out of LSU, I wasn't really (excited about) him. He may
have come out of school too early."

Faulk turned pro after his junior season.

"When he came out, the game may have been too big for him at our level," Vitt
said. "So he's kind of knocked around a little. Now all of a sudden with Trev,
the maturity factor has set in."

Although listed at 254 pounds on the roster, Faulk has his weight down to 235
pounds. Always a big hitter, he's getting to the ball quicker.

Brandon Chillar, the Rams' fourth-round draft pick in April, also has dropped
weight to get quicker. He was 252 at the NFL scouting combine in February, but
235 now.

"We knew Brandon would compete," Vitt said. "And we knew Brandon was a
physical, tough football player. What most surprises me since he's been here is
his athleticism in space."

Spoon started 14 games for Buffalo as a rookie in 2001, but he hasn't played in
a regular-season game since, largely because of injuries. A hamstring injury in
training camp has put him behind with the Rams. Justin Smith and Jeremy Loyd,
who both had some special teams experience with the Rams in 2003, may be
competing against each other for the seventh roster spot at linebacker.

"These next three (games) are going to be critical for a lot of guys on our
football team, and some linebackers in particular," Vitt said.