Friday, July 29, 2005
By Nick Wagoner
As Steven Jackson relaxed in his hometown of Las Vegas earlier this summer, he kicked back and flipped on the television, flipping to ESPN to catch up with the day’s activities in the world of sports.
Then, out of nowhere, he saw his name flash across the bottom of the screen. The words that surrounded his name to form a sentence came as a surprise, the kind of surprise Jackson has waited his whole life for. Yes, Jackson was named the Rams’ starting running back.
“I was on vacation at the time and I saw it come across on ESPN and when I did see it come across, the phone started ringing off the hook,” Jackson said. “It was one of those things I was pleased to hear. I didn’t expect it as soon as it was, but at the same time it gave me time to prepare mentally coming into this (training camp).”
As Jackson enters his second training camp and first as the starter, the expectations for what he could do are mounting. Those expectations stem from the glimpses of greatness Jackson provided last season.
In 2004, Jackson ran for 673 yards and three touchdowns on 134 carries, an average of 5 yards per chance. Along the way, Jackson showed an unusual combination of speed and size that could make him a superstar in the NFL.
Perhaps the moment most remember Jackson for in 2004 was the fourth game of the year at San Francisco. No, Jackson didn’t break any records in that game, but he did break something.
On what appeared to be a normal run up the middle, Jackson burst through the line and headed toward the secondary. As cornerback Mike Rumph dived toward Jackson’s leg, the rookie runner didn’t trip and fall. Instead, Jackson shed the tackle and continued to the next level. Rumph’s arm was broken and he was out for the season.
That is the kind of damage you are capable of when you’re 6-feet-1, 231 pounds and run in the mid to low 4’s in the 40-yard dash. It’s also the kind of damage that can earn you the nickname “Train,” which is the moniker that hangs above Jackson’s locker at Rams Park.
Although Jackson’s first season was impressive for the most part, it did not go off without a hitch. Jackson battled knee injuries, many of which he blamed on the AstroTurf surface at the Edward Jones Dome.
Because of the knee problems, Jackson was forced to have a cleanup surgery on the knee. So Jackson used most of his offseason for rehabilitation, taking 10-12 weeks to recuperate.
“Physically I am bigger than probably the majority of running backs in the league so that’s not something I had to worry about it,” Jackson said. “It was just making sure I had the trust and strength in my knee that I once had.”
Jackson got more good news when the Rams announced that the playing surface at the Edward Jones Dome would change from AstroTurf to FieldTurf, which is easier on his knees.
With rehab out of the way and the assurance that he would get the opportunity to be the man, Jackson reflected on the legend he would be replacing.
Fully aware of Marshall Faulk’s status as an icon in St. Louis, Jackson knows the monumental task he faces in replacing him.
“You just don’t look over your shoulder,” Jackson said. “You just keep grinding, keep learning. I will never forget who the starter was. People around here love him, you are going to see 28 jerseys around the stadium, around the city so I am never going to forget who I replaced, but at the same time I am going to keep moving forward.
“You can never know more than the teacher. I am going to keep watching him, keep asking questions. I’m only in year two, he’s in year 12. I still have a lot of things I can learn from him.”
Faulk graciously accepted his new, less-expansive role and has given Jackson his vote of confidence. In fact, most of the offense has given Jackson the same kind of respect early in training camp.
“Steven is going to be a big workhorse for us,” left tackle Orlando Pace said. “We are going to get him the ball, hopefully open up some big holes for him and he should have a big year.”
Quarterback Marc Bulger also likes the possibilities of what Jackson can do.
“From where he was at this time last year, it’s obvious he feels comfortable,” Bulger said. “He has that attitude of all good backs that he wants the ball every time. Even in practice he is starting to be a lot more vocal in the huddle and it’s great to have that.”
Although training camp only began yesterday, Jackson has already impressed almost everyone who has seen him. He entered camp a little more trim and with more muscle definition and has looked fast, strong and agile in team drills.
Even though Jackson is wearing a gold “Do Not Harm” jersey, he has not shied away from contact. On Thursday morning Jackson lowered the boom on defensive end Anthony Hargrove, displaying the combination of power and speed that could make him an excellent back.
Of course, becoming an excellent back in the Rams offense might be more difficult than doing it somewhere else. Everyone knows about St. Louis’ preference to take to the skies, but early in training camp it seems there has been a new commitment to using the running game more than in the past couple years.
“We’ve retooled a lot of what we are doing in that running game from a personnel standpoint,” coach Mike Martz said. “It’s going to be a brand new factor in our offensive effort in a major way.”
While that remains to be seen, Jackson is spending his time preparing for the job he has wanted for most of his life.
“I’m coming to camp this year a lot more confident (because) I know what to expect and I know the offense,” Jackson said. “I feel comfortable with my teammates. It’s something that I already gained their trust so now I am just moving on and proceeding and gaining chemistry between Marc and myself and the rest of the guys.
“Now I can really start pursuing my dream.”