By Bill Coats

Rams rookie fullback Madison Hedgecock was just a third-grader when his little league football coach dubbed him "Mad Dog." Why?

"Probably because I used to pace a lot before a game," Hedgecock surmised. Or maybe because he delights in ... uh, physical ... football. "I like seeing people run over people," said Hedgecock, who in college once bent the facemask on his helmet while delivering a ferocious blow.

Whatever the derivation, John Bunting, a former Rams assistant who was Hedgecock's head coach at North Carolina, told the Raleigh (N.C.) News & Observer that the nickname was "suitable. He practices hard all the time, he runs around the field, he's the first to every drill. ... He's very energetic, very enthusiastic."

"Mad Dog" took a bite out of Joey Goodspeed's NFL career when he unseated him as the team's first-team fullback during training camp. Goodspeed, who had held the job for two seasons, was released.

The Rams liked Hedgecock's size - he's 6-3 and 266; Goodspeed was 6-1 and about 250. They also were enamored with his devotion to lead blocking. "It can be a fun thing," said Hedgecock, 24. "You see that tailback run for 100 yards, that's where I get my glory."

That's happened only twice this season, however: Steven Jackson rushed for 179 yards vs. Jacksonville on Oct. 30 and 110 yards vs. Houston on Nov. 27. In two of the last three games in particular, the running game has been stalled. The Rams mustered just 49 yards last week in a 24-9 loss to Washington and a mere 6 yards - the second-lowest total in franchise history - Nov. 20 in a 38-28 tumble against Arizona.

As a result, the Rams (5-7) head into Sunday's game at Minnesota (7-5) ranked 26th among the league's 32 teams in rushing offense, at 91.6 yards a game. While acknowledging that his play has been a bit sporadic, Hedgecoock asserted that he deserved little of the blame.

"If I'm not doing my job, yeah," he said. "But ... you can't turn the blame on me for not having a good running game, because I'm lead-blocking my man."

The Rams had been seeking a backfield brute to smash open holes since releasing 6-1, 273-pound James "The Hammer" Hodgins after the 2002 season. A still-learning Hedgecock is filling that role nicely, according to interim head coach Joe Vitt.

"He's getting better every single game," Vitt said. "He kind of reminds me of (former Dallas fullback) 'Moose' Johnston. He's a force when he hits you."

Grinning, Hedgecock said: "I've learned a lot of football this year. But lead blocking never changes. You just go in there and murder somebody."

Hedgecock, a self-described "farm boy" and a passionate NASCAR fan, grew up on the family spread near High Point, N.C. He played fullback, tight end and linebacker at Ledford High in Thomasville, where he rushed for 1,799 yards as a senior.

Bunting switched Hedgecock to defensive end after his freshman season at North Carolina, then - as promised - moved him back to fullback for his final season. It's Hedgecock's preferred position, plus Bunting felt that his pro potential could best be realized there.

The Rams selected Hedgecock with their second choice in the seventh round. At No. 251 overall, he was taken just four places from the end of the draft. Still, he's the only one of the team's 11 picks who has held down a first-team job throughout the season.

"I feel like (my season) is going pretty good now," Hedgecock said. "But in football, it's week to week. Last game I played pretty good, so that's how I feel now."

Hedgecock was given the ball occasionally for the Tar Heels - he recalls fondly a 10-carry, 69-yard performance in a 30-24 victory over archrival North Carolina State and a 10-carry, 36-yard showing in a 31-28 upset of fourth-ranked Miami, both during his senior year.

With the Rams, however, his touches are infrequent: He's carried one time and has caught three passes. "That's just how fullback is today," he said with a shrug. "There's no more grinding it out."

But that's OK with Hedgecock. As he pointed out, it allows him to focus on sharpening what he calls the "lost art" of lead blocking. "Earlier in the year he wasn't sure who to get. Now he really knows who to get and how to get him," Vitt said. "He's really a bright prospect."