Sunday, May 13, 2007

By Nick Wagoner
Senior Writer

Midway through Sunday’s morning practice, quarterback Drew Tate fired a pass intended for Marques Hagans, who was running a crossing pattern. Hagans had a step on his man, but the ball was low and away from Hagans.

Running at full speed, Hagans extended his left arm as far as it would go, grabbed the ball with his left hand and pulled it into his body. It was a highlight reel catch on a day where there weren’t a ton of highlights.

While a one-handed catch in the morning practice of a rookie minicamp might seem insignificant in the grand scheme of things, this grab had plenty of meaning for Hagans.

“What a difference a year makes,” Hagans said.

Indeed. A year ago, Hagans was a wide-eyed fifth-round draft choice out of Virginia who probably would have tripped over his own feet trying to make a similar catch. In addition to being asked to make the transition from college to the NFL, Hagans had the added pressure of moving from quarterback to the dual role of receiver/returner.

It was a task that ultimately proved to be too much to ask of Hagans as a rookie. Initially, Hagans made the team’s active roster out of training camp, but it was clear he wasn’t ready to contribute as a returner and his chances of working as a receiver were even less.

So Hagans was relegated to the practice squad, something that was extremely difficult for someone who was used to being an integral part of every team he’s been on.

“It was definitely hard,” Hagans said. “Every Sunday, watching the team you practice with the whole week go out and travel or go to the stadium and play on Sunday and you are watching the games at home. It was definitely a tough feeling and there were definitely days I wanted to cry. But you know I had to take it as a learning experience.”

Hagans spent the entire season the practice squad, helping out during the week but never getting the opportunity to suit up on Sundays. He didn’t let that discourage him, though, knowing that he would need the work if he wanted to eventually land a spot on the active roster.

Receivers coach Henry Ellard worked with Hagans regularly and Hagans made it a point to pick the brains of Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt as much as possible. When the offseason arrived, Hagans decided he would do whatever it takes to put himself in a position to succeed.

Hagans began working on his speed, coming in as much as possible and doing enough to gain speed. It’s even noticeable on the practice field that he has picked up a step or two in his route running.

In addition, Hagans started taking part in a Thursday evening ritual that would improve his diet. Safety Corey Chavous, who apparently can do just about anything, took on the role of dietician/chef, inviting Hagans to his home and cooking healthy meals while they watch film and basketball.

“He shows me how to eat square meals, more meals a day and watch my intake,” Hagans said. “Guys are really looking out for me and trying to help me out as much as possible.”

The improvement in Hagans stood out Sunday morning. In addition to his acrobatic grab in the seven on seven drills, he continued to make some nice plays in team drills, also.

“(He’s) come a long way,” coach Scott Linehan said. “He’s much more comfortable. He’s got a much better feel for it. You’re going to see a much more confident, much improved receiver.”

And Hagans’ growth hasn’t been limited to receiver. He continues to make strides as a returner, the spot the team had hoped he could fill when it drafted him last year.

“The funny thing about punt returning is you can catch punts in practice all day but until you actually get out in a game and people are flying down the field trying to take your head off you can’t really get a good feel,” Hagans said.

Hagans acknowledges that he is more comfortable in that role, too. He believes that comfort level will only increase with yet another legend of his position (in addition to Bruce and Holt) in Dante Hall to help guide him.

“It’s like three blessings,” Hagans said. “You have one of the greatest guys ever to return punts and kicks right in front of you every day in practice so you can’t help but learn from him every day in practice and try to pick his brain for techniques. I’m going to continue to try to learn everything and get better.”

Undoubtedly, the competition at receiver figures to be tough. Holt, Bruce, Drew Bennett, Hall and likely Dane Looker figure to be safe or relatively safe heading to training camp. That would leave one or possibly no openings at the position and Hagans would be battling the likes of Dominique Thompson and seventh-round choice Derek Stanley for a spot.

Hagans isn’t letting any of that bother him, though, as he continues his pursuit of landing a roster spot.

“I’m definitely a lot further than I was last year having the chance to be at receiver for a full year,” Hagans said. “I know I have a long way to go, but I just feel a lot more confident in knowing what I’m supposed to do. Now the main thing is doing it on a consistent basis and doing what the coaches teach me.”

BREAKING IN: Heading in to this weekend’s minicamp, undrafted rookie quarterback Tate knew he had plenty of work to do. And he knew that work wasn’t going to be limited to studying his playbook. He literally had a ton of work to do.

Tate is the only quarterback at the Rams’ rookie minicamp, meaning he is taking every snap in every drill the team does. That’s not something many players are used to and it has led to some tough moments.

“They told me I was the only one here for the first four practices,” Tate said. “I figured it was going to be a lot, I just didn’t know it would be this much.”

In his first four professional practices, Tate has thrown hundreds of balls so it would stand to reason that his arm is tired. But Tate said it isn’t his arm that has bothered him the most.

“I think my feet might actually fall off,” Tate said. “I don’t know. I think it might be the new shoes I have been trying to break in. Other than that, it’s all right.”

Tate got a bit of relief after truly struggling in the Saturday sessions. Quarterbacks coach Doug Nussmeier took some of the reps for Tate, giving him a bit of a breather.

“Yesterday after the first two, I was dying out there because I was the only one throwing and dropping,” Tate said. “You just try to be perfect as a free agent rookie and I was trying to do all of that stuff. I was just burned out by the time we got to seven on seven. Today it helped out a lot because it cut down on my reps and my feet.”

RYAN SITS: Fifth-round defensive tackle Clifton Ryan was visibly winded and appeared to be injured at the end of Saturday’s workouts. On Sunday morning, Ryan tried to return to the field and play through the pain.

But early in the Sunday morning practice, Ryan hobbled off the field with a noticeable limp. Linehan said Ryan was kicked in the back of his left calf. The leg began to swell overnight and Ryan missed all of the two Sunday workouts.

“It was just kind of a fluke deal,” Linehan said. “I think there’s a good chance he’ll be able to go in the OTA on Tuesday.”