By Bill Coats
Of the Post-Dispatch
08/04/2004
MACOMB, Ill. - After a week of resort-like weather, heat and humidity swooped down Tuesday on the football fields at Western Illinois University. Some players might have enjoyed a day off under the steamy conditions. But not Rams defensive end Tyoka Jackson, who was forced to the sideline with a banged-up left leg.

"When I'm not practicing, there's extra work for my teammates, and I don't like to do that," Jackson said. "Football is a game of ongoing skill development, and every day that you miss a practice you're missing a day to get better, to get your skills developed more. And so I'm not happy about it."

Jackson, 32, is one of the team's five full-time captains for the second year in succession, and he takes those duties seriously.

"I always respected all the captains I've ever been around, from high school through college and in the NFL," he said. "Now that it's been bestowed on me, I take it personal. It's a great honor."

Among his responsibilities, Jackson said, is to demonstrate a high level of dedication.

"All leaders who are worth anything are leaders by example, and you can't lead by example when you're watching everyone else work," he said. "There are going to be nicks and scrapes; I'm just thankful it's not a big-time, serious injury."

Coach Mike Martz said Jackson is "what we'd like everybody to use as a role model in that respect, in terms of competing, being a pro, a team player, all those things."

Jackson provides relief for starter Leonard Little on the left side and often moves inside on third-down situations. Jackson played in all 16 regular-season games last year, with four starts. He totaled 45 tackles, with 5 1/2 sacks. Both were career highs for Jackson, who is starting his 10th season in the NFL.

Jackson, a Penn State product who was not drafted in 1994 but was signed by Miami, has played with the Rams for three seasons. He said his time in the league has flown by.

"In a lot of ways I still feel like I'm the same guy who was fighting for my life coming in as an undrafted free agent," he said. "I feel that was the biggest injustice of my career. That's never going to leave me.

"I'm always going to be the guy in my heart who's fighting to get respect and fighting for a job every single year. That keeps me on edge, keeps me getting better."

On Wednesday morning, Jackson was back on the practice field.

A lot to learn

Few NFL rookies face the kind of challenge that confronts quarterback Jeff Smoker, the Rams' sixth-round draft pick out of Michigan State. He is charged with mastering the bulging playbook that contains the details of Martz's intricate offense.

And that won't occur quickly, Smoker acknowledged.

"I think it takes a long time, maybe even a year or so, to really know the ins and outs of this offense," he said. "So I'm trying to take it bit by bit and get comfortable with a piece at a time. But I'm definitely far from getting a grasp on all of it."

Smoker, expected to fill the No. 3 spot behind Marc Bulger and Chris Chandler, also is adjusting to getting only occasional reps during training camp.

"It's frustrating sometimes," he said. "I'm used to always being the starter, ever since I was little. Now I'm trying to learn how to stand back there and learn just from watching. It's a little different, but you've just got to take advantage of the time you get."