Free Safety Competition Heats Up - Wagoner
Free Safety Competition Heats Up
Thursday, August 25, 2005
By Nick Wagoner
Let the battle for the starting free safety spot begin…again.
With the move of Adam Archuleta back to strong safety, the free spot has opened up again. That leaves about two weeks for the situation to sort itself out in time for the season opener against San Francisco.
For now, a pair of Rams has emerged as the front-runners for the job. Rookie Oshiomogho Atogwe started the preseason opener against Chicago and Michael Hawthorne handled starting duties against the Chargers on Sunday.
But there are plenty of contenders aiming for the one spot and coach Mike Martz is monitoring the situation closely.
“We have so many strong candidates at the free safety position we just feel like we can move Arch back to strong,” Martz said. “Somebody is going to come out on top.”
Indeed somebody will come out on top because, well, somebody has to. Hawthorne has the edge for now it appears because of his experience, leaving Atogwe with the task of overcoming the stigma that goes with being a rookie.
Atogwe missed the game against San Diego because of a groin injury. But for comparisons sake, we can take a look at the numbers for each player in their one start.
Atogwe made four tackles and had an interception to seal the game against Chicago and Hawthorne has four tackles in unofficial press box statistics.
The Rams signed Hawthorne away from Green Bay during the offseason in hopes of getting a boost at a number of positions.
“There was an opportunity when I came here,” Hawthorne said. “(At) free safety, strong safety, cornerback, nickel, special teamer, there’s always opportunity. Every time you step on the field you have to autograph your performance.”
Hawthorne is hoping to leave his signature on the final pair of preseason games so that he can claim the starting job as his. Hawthorne lined up as the starting free safety for most of Wednesday afternoon’s practice, too.
Martz spotted one weakness in Hawthorne’s play Sunday, but said he likes what he sees.
“He’s always around the ball,” Martz said. “He missed some tackles, but we can clean that up. He’s around the ball, he makes a lot of plays, he breaks on the ball, and he’s smart. Actually, he’s come further than I expected.”
Atogwe has similar goals, but he isn’t quite as worried about landing a starting job. After suffering a groin injury Friday before the team left for San Diego, Atogwe was unable to play in the game.
That left him slightly behind the curve and created Hawthorne’s first chance for a start. Although Atogwe says he is only about 80-85 percent healthy, he returned to practice Wednesday afternoon.
Atogwe said he knows he has a tough task ahead if he wants to land the starting job.
“People are getting shuffled around, spots are opening up, I’m in competition with Michael Hawthorne for the spot, but I am not really focused on starting,” Atogwe said. “I’m focused on me getting better as a player.
“I feel like you do have to earn the trust of a coach. As a rookie, you are unproven. A veteran guy in the league for a while he’s proven himself that he’s capable of playing at a high-intensity, pressure situation. Throughout the training camp I am just going to continue to show coach I know my assignments, I am at where I’m supposed to be at and I’m playing as well as anyone else. Hopefully that helps build the trust in him for me.”
The rookie out of Stanford and the veteran from Green Bay aren’t the only two candidates for the starting position, though. Martz called Mike Furrey the surprise of training camp and is impressed at how well Furrey has picked up the defense after moving over from wide receiver.
“If you watch Michael (Furrey) on special teams with his speed…he just wants to play,” Martz said. “He’s going to make himself play one way or another.”
Those are the three top contenders for the spot, but one possible contender doesn’t look like he will be getting a shot at safety anytime soon. Rookie cornerback Ronald Bartell has played strictly corner since arriving in the NFL in April, but he has college experience as a free safety and the athletic tools to make the move if needed.
Bartell has never said one way or another which position he would prefer, but has made clear what his biggest mission is.
“I really haven’t even thought about it,” Bartell said. “I’m trying to get this corner thing down. If the move comes to free safety I will welcome it with open arms. I just want to be able to help this team win.”
That’s one goal all of the contenders for the free safety spot share.
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