Middle Man: Will Witherspoon
By Bill Coats

Grumbling that he'd played for the Rams "for four years at discount prices," London Fletcher signed a five-year, $17.1 million free-agent contract with the Buffalo Bills on March 6, 2002.

Four years later, the Rams finally might have landed a suitable replacement for Fletcher. If so, then the inelegant experiments with Jamie Duncan, Robert Thomas, Chris Claiborne and a handful of others perhaps will begin to fade.

Assistant head coach Rick Venturi, who also coaches the linebackers, firmly believes that the Rams have found their man in Will Witherspoon. A fifth-year pro from the University of Georgia, Witherspoon led the Carolina Panthers in tackles the last two seasons before the Rams doled out $33 million over six years to land him as a free agent.

"It's a double-edged deal," Venturi said "First of all, you're bringing in a very talented guy, a proven guy who has all the ability in the world. But he's also a high-character guy. He has a tremendous attitude, he studies, he has a quiet leadership about him and great pride. And he's smart." Advertisement

Witherspoon, 26, is the centerpiece -- literally -- of an extreme makeover that began soon after first-year head coach Scott Linehan hired Jim Haslett as his defensive coordinator. During a hectic seven-day period in March, the team signed four veteran free agents: Witherspoon, tackle La'Roi Glover, strong safety Corey Chavous and cornerback Fakhir Brown.

All are starters on a unit that includes just three players -- defensive ends Leonard Little and Anthony Hargrove, plus linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa -- who were Rams first-teamers at the end of the 2005 season. The Rams finished 6-10, and the defense slumped to 31st in the 32-team NFL.

"We're starting to see a group of guys that are really building together," Witherspoon said. "There are lots of positive things happening. Things are going to change. Things are going to be different."

Travelin' man

The Witherspoons -- father Cordell, mother Nora, daughter Kir and son William -- traveled throughout Europe during the 1980s and part of the '90s. Cordell Witherspoon, a senior master sergeant in the Air Force, took his family with him to his various postings.

While Dad was working -- he was a mechanic -- Mom took the kids on a regular schedule of side trips. She wanted to broaden their horizons, expose them to different cultures.

"We spent eight years in Germany, and we took the train everywhere from there," Will said. "We went to Italy, Spain . . . all over the place. We had a lot of good times, a lot of fun there. Got to experience a lot."

When Cordell Witherspoon retired, the family settled in Panama City, Fla. Will had picked up some Arabic and Swedish from friends during his time abroad, and he was as fluent in German as he was in English.

"Now, I'm getting really rusty," he said, laughing. "My sister will shoot me a text message in German every once in a while. It takes a second now that I haven't really had to use it in 10 or 12 years."

A move to linebacker from defensive end before his senior season at Rutherford High helped to trigger Witherspoon's potential. USA Today named him Florida's prep player of the year after Rutherford went 13-1 and finished second in the state playoffs.

Witherspoon spent time at all three linebacker positions at Georgia, where he was a three-year starter. The Panthers, impressed by his speed, range and engaging personality, took him in the third round (No. 73 overall) of the 2002 draft. He was starting by midseason.

"He had good athletic ability and was real aware of patterns and reads," said Ken Flajole, the Panthers' linebackers coach. "He understood what we were trying to do.

"A lot of times he had to match up with a wide receiver in zone concepts, and he did a great job. He had kind of a sixth sense about that."

A linchpin in Carolina's surprising surge to the NFC championship in 2002, Witherspoon piled up a career-high 16 tackles in the Super Bowl, in which New England edged the Panthers 32-29.

In four seasons, Witherspoon collected 421 tackles and seven interceptions for a defense that consistently ranked among the league's best. He played mostly on the outside but also got about a dozen starts in the middle.

"He always brought his 'A' game," Flajole said. "It's very rare in a coach's career that you get that mix in a kid -- great person, great family, great work ethic. That was 'Spoon.'"

Witherspoon missed only one start after his rookie season. That occurred last Sept. 25, when he sat out the Panthers' 27-24 loss at Miami because of sprained knee.

Linehan, the Dolphins' offensive coordinator at the time, said: "I told him there was a reason I thought we beat them, and it's because he wasn't in there. He's a quiet leader who does his job by example . . . an everybody-gets-on-his-back type of guy. That's what I think separates him from a lot of players in this league."

The big dogs

Witherspoon has plenty to occupy his time in the offseason, including running two day-care centers for dogs and a fledgling real estate business in Charlotte, N.C. Mostly, though, he spends time with his family -- wife Rebecca and daughters Layne and Maya -- while tending to his own animals: two horses and five dogs.

Make that five big dogs.

"I have two Weimaraners, an English Mastiff, a Great Dane and a Greater Swiss Mountain Dog," he said. "They all stay in the house and roam around with me. In the house I'm building here, they have their own room. It's kind of hilarious."

This past offseason, Witherspoon, a free agent for the first time, also was busy fielding offers from other teams. The Rams not only offered big bucks but also a chance to fill a vital role in a major reclamation project.

"When you come from a team like I played with, you say, 'Hey, I want to be on another good team if I'm not going to be here, another good defense.' Or at least you want to be somewhere where you know you're going to build a great defense," Witherspoon said. "And I think that's the opportunity I have here, to be part of something that's going to be built to be great. . . . That's what we're trying to accomplish here."

Witherspoon has added about 10 pounds, to 240, to his 6-foot-1 frame for the move back to the middle. And he already has won over his new teammates. Defensive end Anthony Hargrove grew animated, almost incredulous, when asked to list Witherspoon's assets.

"You see the guy run? You see him hit? You see him play?" asked Hargrove, his voice rising. "He's all over the field. He's a great hitter, he's intelligent and he's a leader. He . . . is . . . a . . . leader."

Weakside linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa, who over three seasons has witnessed firsthand the procession of pretenders in the middle, didn't hesitate when asked whether Witherspoon was the best he'd lined up with.

"Absolutely," Tinoisamoa said, smiling broadly. "Very smart, very fast, very quick . . . a very good linebacker."


bcoats@post-dispatch.com 314-340-8189



Obtained: Signed as a free agent March 12

In his own words: "I'm not going to be the guy who's in your face (saying), 'You've gotta do this, you've gotta have it this way.' I'm going to lead more by example. I'm going to lead more by the things I do rather than the things I say."