By Jim Thomas
Of the Post-Dispatch
08/24/2004

After bumpy rookie seasons, cornerbacks DeJuan Groce and Kevin Garrett felt much more at home in their second NFL training camp.

"You can see that confidence building in them," secondary coach Perry Fewell said last week, before the team broke from Macomb, Ill. "I think they're much more comfortable and not as anxious as they were a year ago."

That confidence and "comfort" will be put to the test after Travis Fisher suffered a fractured forearm in Monday's preseason game in Kansas City. Fisher is scheduled to have surgery today.

Immediately after the game, coach Mike Martz indicated that Fisher could be lost for the season. He softened that stance somewhat on Tuesday, but it's clear Fisher is out for an extended period.

"No one really completely knows when we'll get him back," Martz said. "You can be very optimistic and talk about eight to 10 weeks, and then very pessimistic and say three to four months. ...We're not going to put him on IR (injured reserve) at this point."

But the bottom line remains the same. Fisher, an up-and-coming cornerback, will be hard to replace - and Groce or Garrett will be the replacement. "They've both had very good camps," Martz said. "In fact, Kevin had a better camp than I would have thought. He had the furthest to go, just in his skills and his background. He didn't have the discipline.

"DeJuan was a little bit more refined. And I thought Kevin caught up pretty good in camp. In fact, I was hard-pressed to determine which one had the edge."

Groce normally is Fisher's backup, but Garrett has stepped into that role since Groce suffered a knee injury last week in Macomb. The injury occurred while Groce was planting in coverage against Torry Holt.

Martz said Groce is close to coming back, but may not be ready to go until the preseason finale Sept. 2 in Oakland.

"I think the swelling is out of the knee pretty good at this point," Martz said. "It's not as sore. ... It's a day-to-day thing. But if he's not ready, he's not ready."

Even after Fisher's injury, the Rams don't want to rush Groce back against Washington on Friday, or against Oakland. It's the regular-season opener Sept. 12 against Arizona that counts.

"Everything is about getting ready for that opener, and that's what we have to keep in mind," Martz said.

Groce was the team's third cornerback last season, and occasionally got thrown into some tough situations - like that start against Hines Ward, Plaxico Burress and the Pittsburgh Steelers in October when Fisher was sidelined with a strained groin.

"I got thrown into the fire sometimes last year," Groce said. "Having Aeneas (Williams) and Fisher and those guys help me out, and watching them, it's made it a lot easier this year. It's being able to go out and know what you're doing, instead of running around like a rookie."

Groce played enough to record 15 tackles last year, including an interception of Tommy Maddox in the Pittsburgh game.

Meanwhile, Garrett was limited to nine games because of wrist and knee problems.

"He missed so much time that he didn't get the playing experience, and all the technique work that DeJuan got," Fewell said.

But Garrett was making a run at Groce for the third corner spot before Groce's injury.

"Kevin has extremely good talent," Fewell said. "He has speed, he has size, he has quickness. DeJuan Groce knows the situations of the game a little bit better. And then he got game experience last year, too."

Fewell said both players have learned to be more aggressive at the line of scrimmage, while also learning to be more patient and not over-commit on routes and moves.

Now they're battling for a starting spot - not the first spot off the bench - now that Fisher's sidelined.

"That's what they're here for," Martz said. "That's why they get paid - for this opportunity. They need to make the most of it, and I'm sure they will."

As a last resort, Martz said he would consider moving veteran Williams from free safety back to cornerback. He said he talked to Williams about that very possibility Monday night following the Chiefs game.

"But we certainly don't want to do that," Martz said. "It's not fair to Aeneas. He's spent so much time back there (at safety) getting ready to play. He's just at the point now where he has a real good feel for it."

On the other hand. ...

"We've got to have our best players on the field at the best spots," Martz said. "So that could happen in an extreme situation."