By Jim Thomas
Of the Post-Dispatch
MACOMB, Ill. - Quarterback Russ Michna is right at home in Macomb. During his standout career at Western Illinois University, he spent two years living in the Thompson Hall dormitory.

These days, Michna finds himself right back at Thompson, trying to make the Rams' roster as an undrafted rookie.

"How weird is that?" Michna said. "It's even weird walking around seeing the same people in the dorms. Seeing the same security people. The same janitors.

"The only thing that I can say is different is they've got a new dining hall. Otherwise, everything looks exactly the same as the first day I walked in there."

No, Michna didn't ask for his old dorm room.

"I wasn't getting greedy," he said. "Wherever they put me, I was happy."

In college, Michna was a two-time offensive player of the year in the Gateway Conference. He threw for a school-record 3,160 yards last year for the Leathernecks, annually a Division I-AA football power.

About 10 or 12 NFL teams talked to Michna up to and through the draft, but he didn't get selected despite his lofty numbers and Western's success

"I didn't have my mind set on getting drafted," Michna said. "A lot of the things that I heard (from scouts) is that I was very raw. I hadn't been coached. But I just wanted the opportunity ... and to have that opportunity to learn. I've got that here."

The Rams had talked to Michna not long after the draft.

"They said, 'We're planning on bringing you in after June 1,'" Michna said. "But still, what does that mean?"

In this case it meant: When we release Kurt Warner, we'll have a roster spot at quarterback.

Michna was signed on June 2 - the same day Warner was released.

Michna (pronounced MICK-nah) is a bright player. Not only does he have his undergraduate degree in finance - he already has is master's in business administration. He already has been able to grasp some of what the Rams' do on offense. In addition, the lefty has an accurate arm, decent arm strength, and very good mobility.

"He's a good little player," coach Mike Martz said. "He's not a camp arm."

For the record, Michna is 6-1, 224 pounds. His chances of making the 2004 Rams roster are slim. During the offseason, the Rams made a four-year, $19.1 million commitment to Marc Bulger as their starter. They also brought in veteran Chris Chandler as their backup, and drafted Michigan State's Jeff Smoker in the sixth round.

With practice squads expanded to eight players this year, Michna's best chance of staying with the Rams in '04 would be on that developmental squad.

Much to the delight of Leathernecks fans in attendance at Hanson Field, Michna played in the Aug. 7 scrimmage against Chicago - completing one of two passes for 17 yards.

But he didn't play in last week's preseason game against the Bears, and there's no guarantee he'll get in any of the Rams' remaining three preseason games, either.

Bulger figures to get more work from here on out; Chandler is new to the system; and Smoker needs plenty of work.

Michna said the "Air Martz" playbook was overwhelming at first.

"But then once you get into it, and you really start to understand the concepts of why things are happening, it's really impressive," Michna said. "It makes all the sense in the world. It's just very articulate, very precise, and it's a great system to be in."

He has far from mastered it, however. As soon as Michna thinks he has something down, there's a new challenge or new wrinkle the next day.

"So it's a process," Michna said. "You've got to continue to work at it, and continue to try and get a good feel for it."

With roster cutdown days fast approaching, there's no guarantee of how much longer the learning process will continue for Michna. But at least he's made a good impression.

"He's way further along than I was after a couple months," Bulger said. "Light years past where I was. He's able to say the verbiage and understand it. He's definitely good enough, I think, to play in the NFL."