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When training camp opened, it appeared veteran Andy McCollum had the inside track to the team's starting job at center. McCollum had made a remarkable comeback at the age of 37 from major knee surgery. And despite solid play from Brett Romberg in the final three games of the 2006 season, McCollum's experience seemed to give him an edge.
But after more than three weeks of training camp and two practice games, coaches are no closer to naming a starter now than they were when camp opened July 27.
Romberg, who turns 28 in October, started the first game against Minnesota, while McCollum started the second game against San Diego. Coach Scott Linehan said a decision would probably be made Tuesday regarding who will start Friday against Oakland.
"We haven't come to a conclusion yet," Linehan said, the day after the team's 30-13 loss to San Diego. "We still feel very comfortable with both of them. I thought Andy played well against the first defensive front. With what we have evaluated to this point, we feel it is still too close to call. Brett played a lot of plays; I think he played up near 40 plays, because of how the rotation worked. We wanted to make sure he stayed in there while Gus (Frerotte) was in there. He played well when he went in. It is still a pretty tight battle."
Linehan said many factors play into the decision.
"There is something to be said about the chemistry of the front and how combinations of guys work together," he said. "I think they are both so close in how they are playing right now that sometimes you just have to give them more than one or two or even three opportunities. That's the interesting battle of our training camp on offense, certainly. That is because of how close they are No. 1, but No. 2, we do have four preseason games to evaluate that position and hopefully make the best judgment once we get to the regular season. It is not just how they grade out, but it is a little bit how we do when we play as a team. It is not a lot different from other positions."
Asked about the physical differences between the two players, Linehan said: "Andy is a little bit bigger in stature and maybe a little bit longer. Brett is a little lower to the ground. The difference right now is so subtle. I think both are bringing some real positives to the table. The hardest decision we are going to have to make is what is best for that entire group in there and what is best down the road as well."
—The team was dealing with tragedy when Kathy Garrett, the 38-year-old wife of tight ends coach Judd Garrett, passed away Sunday morning (Aug. 19). Judd Garrett is the brother of Cowboys offensive coordinator Jason Garrett.
An All-America soccer player at Princeton, the school Judd also attended, Kathy Garrett was hospitalized four days before she died when her body apparently stopped functioning.
The Garrett's have four children.
—Coach Scott Linehan likes what he sees from LB Will Witherspoon, who is playing his second season in coordinator Jim Haslett's system and as a middle linebacker.
"Our offense is doing a lot more with a lot of movement and things where he has to reset the front and do all those things," Linehan said. "He's able to see a lot of things that we're going to see during the year, and it's just like night and day as far as the intangible-type things other than his ability to play and run the ball and make tackles. He is really much improved."
—RB Steven Jackson has yet to carry the ball from scrimmage in two games. Saturday against San Diego, he was on the field for the first play of the game, and that was it for the evening.
Coaches wanted to get a long look at rookie Brian Leonard against a first-team defense.
"We just decided not to play him," Linehan said of Jackson. "We felt good about Brian's start last week. I thought he ran hard and showed some good signs tonight. But, this is our chance to find out how we feel about our No. 2 back situation. That hasn't really changed. I have a pretty good idea of what we are going to get out of Steven."
Before the game, Linehan had said of using Jackson, "We get every player ready to play and then we decide based on the game plan if we are going to play a player. I don't think our first group, especially the proven-type players, will play a whole lot. That is just the way preseason is. But we will decide which games we play more and which games we play less."
Explaining further the decision to get a lot of snaps for Leonard, who had 19 rushing attempts against the Chargers, "Our biggest question is, 'If Steven weren't in the game, who are we going to play?' I don't have any question about what Steven is going to be able to do. My biggest thing with running backs is that they get hit a lot. During the regular season they get hit a lot more than any other position on our football team. You try to be really smart about that in preseason. He takes all of the reps with the ones in practice; you guys know he's out there. We keep him out of some, but he gets a lot of snaps during the week.
"Our biggest question and we are answering it, is 'Can Brian fill that No. 2 spot?' The only way to figure that out is to play him like he is in a starting role. As far as the snaps, the plan all along was to play Brian a lot in the first half of all of the preseason games."
—As for Leonard, Linehan is pleased with how quickly he has picked up the responsibilities of the position.
Asked about handling the job, Linehan said, "I don't have any question that he can handle it. He does things in a different way. I have been really impressed with how comfortable he has been in that role. He has done a great job when it comes to running the ball downhill. He is kind of a slashing runner who gets the most out of what he's got there. What he has been really good at is in the passing game and the protection side of things, which is the part that rookies usually struggle in. He has done a great job in that regard. When we have thrown the ball, he has caught it. He has done a good job with it after the catch. I think he is a well-rounded player and every time I see him play I get more encouraged."
Coaches plan to get Leonard significant practice snaps at fullback over the next two weeks so he can be also up to speed at that position.
—Fired last season as Michigan State head coach, the Rams hired John L. Smith to do advance scouting of the team's opponents.
When he was the head coach at Idaho in 1989, Smith hired Scott Linehan as receivers coach, his first coaching job.
"John L. is a great evaluator," Linehan said. "He can see strength and weaknesses of the personnel we're going to play."
Smith hired Linehan two more times, once again at Idaho after linehan went to UNLV for a year and later as offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach at Louisville.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "He's so gifted he doesn't know it yet. He has some tools that a lot of defensive linemen don't have nowadays. Once he learns how to use that and use it more consistently, he should be fine." — DE Leonard Little on second-year DT Claude Wroten.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
—TE Dominique Byrd, charged in the spring with a DUI and driving without a license, had his trial continued from last Thursday (Aug. 16) until Oct. 16.
—DE Victor Adeyanju has been getting some work inside at tackle.
"We're just adding some versatility to him," coach Scott Linehan said. "I think it enhances his ability to rush the passer from inside vs. outside."
Said Adeyanju, "I'm up for the challenge. Obviously, it's more work mentally, but it makes yourself a lot more valuable, in case some guys go down or they need an extra guy there."
—WR Dane Looker, also the holder for PK Jeff Wilkins, did not play against San Diego because of a back injury and might not be available Friday against Oakland when Wilkins kicks in a game for the first time this summer.
—PK Jeff Wilkins has not kicked in the first two preseason games, but will kick Friday against Oakland.
—CB Jonathan Wade continues to progress coming in as the third corner in passing situations and could challenge Ron Bartell for the starting job by the time the season opens Sept. 9 against Carolina.
—QB Ryan Fitzpatrick hopes to practice this week after missing time after suffering a cracked rib in the team's Aug. 10 game against Minnesota.
—OT Todd Steussie did not play against San Diego because of a pinched nerve in his neck suffered in practice.
BATTLE OF THE WEEK: Ron Bartell vs. Jonathan Wade for starting CB job — With Fakhir Brown expected to miss the first four games of the season because of a league suspension, Ron Bartell has been starting at cornerback with rookie Jonathan Wade entering the game more than Lenny Walls as the nickel back. However, Wade plays on the outside in the nickel with Bartell moving inside to the slot. With Wade showing himself to be a willing and solid tackler and Bartell struggling at times there, Wade could end up starting if he continues progressing since he would be on the outside just as he is in the nickel. Bartell would still be the nickel back and play the same slot position.
OTHER BATTLEFRONTS: RB Rich Alexis played a lot against San Diego, as he battles Travis Minor and Kay-Jay Harris for the No. 3 job ... LB Tim McGarigle remains out with a hamstring injury, and is losing time in his hopes to be the team's sixth or seventh linebacker.
PLAYER OF THE WEEK: RB Brian Leonard — He doesn't do spectacular things, but rarely loses yards in the running game, and fights for extra yards. He has done well in protections, and will now begin getting some work as a fullback.
ROOKIE REPORT: OT Ken Shackleford returned to practice after missing time because of a knee injury. It appears his only chance this year is on the practice squad.
INJURY REPORT: WR Drew Bennett was proclaimed healthy the day after it was thought he suffered bruised ribs against the Chargers. Bennett only had the wind knocked out of him after being hit following a 34-yard pass play. ... RG Richie Incognito suffered a slightly sprained ankle against San Diego. ... Backup OT Todd Steussie did not play against the Chargers because of a pinched nerve in his neck suffered in practice Aug. 15. ... QB Ryan Fitzpatrick is expected to return to practice this week after injuring his ribs after a hit from Minnesota LB Heath Farwell on Aug. 10. Farwell was fined $7,500 by the league.
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