Groce could be key in Rams secondary
By Jeff Gordon
Of the Post-Dispatch

Rams safety DeJuan Groce has proven his flexibility. When healthy last season, he moved here, there and everywhere as various players either got hurt or failed.

He started games at left cornerback and nickel back, got some looks at safety again and returned a kickoff. “I played all over the place,” Groce recalled.

Now the Rams want Groce to prove he is as capable as he is flexible. Groce is widely viewed as one of the pivotal players for 2005.

He has fully recovered from the hamstring and knee injuries that sidelined him for five games last season. This is his third NFL season, so it’s time he broke out and established himself.

If he plays well, Groce can help get this unit back to where it was under former coordinator Lovie Smith.

If he fails, he could become a candidate for the ’05 Tommy Polley Vanishing Prospect Award -– which comes with a one-way ticket out of town.

The Rams know their front seven is much better than a year ago, thanks to the addition of two veteran starting linebackers. But the team still needs dramatic improvement from its secondary, which was riddled with injuries last season.

To that end, coach Mike Martz brought in an uncommonly deep supply of cornerbacks, looking to create heated competition. Given the crowd in this camp, Groce figured to fight for the nickel back role, with incumbents Travis Fisher and Jerametrius Butler manning the corners.

Dwight Anderson was also bidding for that job, along with veterans Terry Fair and Corey Ivey and rookie Ronald Bartell. Anderson seemed to take the early lead during the camp sessions.

But the sorting out is underway and Groce is emerging as a key piece of this defensive puzzle. With Anderson gone for disciplinary reasons and Butler contemplating knee surgery that could end his season, Groce has moved back into a starting assignment at cornerback.

So far, anyway, Martz likes what Groce is showing him.

“The thing that pleases me the most is his focus,” Martz said after Tuesday’s morning practice at Rams Park. “It’s easy to do out there, have a little bit of a lapse.

“He is making the most of his opportunity, which is what good players do.”

Martz has held out hope for Butler, who is seeking secondary medical opinions on his knee. He has seemed inclined to play with the injury.

But will the knee hold up? And how well could Butler play with that injury? With those questions looming, Groce must step in and perform.

“I’m happy with how everything is going,” Groce said Tuesday. “If (Butler) comes back, I’ll move back to nickel.”

What about punt returning? Does he want another crack at the job he held for much of the 2003 season?

“I still want to do it,” Groce said. “That’s up to the coaches. If I get the opportunity to do it, I’ll do it.”

Fair is also fighting for that job. He is regaining his legs both as a return specialist and a cornerback. Bartell has demonstrated tremendous potential at cornerback, but he is still raw.

Ivy stood out in the preseason opener, but he injured his wrist making an interception. Despite wearing a cast, he wants to play in Week 2 of the preseason at San Diego.

“This is the first time since I’ve been here that we’ve brought so many cornerbacks to camp,” Groce said. “We support each other. We have everybody out there competing. We get each other up.”

Oh, and there is one more thing: Groce said the ’05 Rams have a much better handle on Larry Marmie’s defense than a year ago. The players immersed themselves in it during the offseason.

“We took it slow, play by play, got it down,” Groce said. “We picked it up fast. We got to training camp and we’re just flying around.”

Martz hopes they keep it that way.