With minor renovations, Rams begin to build
By Jim Thomas

Of the Post-Dispatch

MACOMB, Ill. - The foundation was laid a couple of months ago, during minicamps and the lighter practices known as OTAs, or organized team activity.

But with Wednesday's start of training camp, veteran safety Aeneas Williams provided this construction update: "We're now putting in the 2-by-4s, and starting to build a sturdy house."

Some of the outward swagger of past Rams teams is gone. But with a 61-27 record over the past five seasons - including four playoff berths, three division titles and two Super Bowl appearances - expectations remain high.

"In my opinion, this is as good a team as I've been on in my career - in terms of talent," defensive captain Tyoka Jackson said. "Now, the experience level is not what it was in 2001 (the Rams' most recent Super Bowl squad). But talent-wise, no question it's there."

By season's end, the Rams expect to build a mansion, not a shack. And coach Mike Martz already is tinkering with the blueprint. Most notable on Wednesday was the sight of Arlen Harris working almost exclusively at halfback.

"We think that's what he is, really," Martz said.

But what about those plans to switch Harris to fullback?

"We want him to learn fullback, because ultimately during the season, we'd like to use him as such - with he and Marshall (Faulk) in the backfield, just as another alternative in various personnel groupings," Martz said. "And if you teach him (fullback), in the event that something would happen to Joey Goodspeed, we know that he can go in there and survive and do well. But first and foremost we kind of look at him as a halfback."

This is true even though Harris reported at 226 pounds, about 15 pounds heavier than his playing weight as a rookie last season. An offseason of weight training and conditioning has made Harris faster, even in his bulked-up form.

"He really got our attention because he's got some real live ability in terms of reading and cutting and breaking tackles and all those things," Martz said.

The Rams also have moved defensive end Nick Burley to tight end.

The Rams' 10th training camp since the move to St. Louis began bright and early Wednesday. Martz has moved up the starting time of morning workouts to 8 a.m. - an hour earlier than past camps.

"I'd rather be sleeping," wide receiver Torry Holt joked. "But if that's what Coach (Martz) feels is going to make us a better football team and get us through training camp ... we've just got to do it."

At least no one could complain about the weather. It was resort weather - so much so that Martz came out for the start of the afternoon practice wearing a sweatshirt, attire not normally associated with Macomb in late July.

There was one first-day casualty on the practice field. Offensive lineman Peter Heyer, a native of Colgone, Germany, headed to the trainer's tent after only a couple of turns at the blocking sled Wednesday morning.

He experienced some breathing difficulty and was sent back to St. Louis in the afternoon for tests. Team officials weren't overly concerned, but Heyer will be checked for asthma-related problems. He's with the Rams as part of a new program placing an NFL Europe player not from the U.S. on each NFL team's practice squad.

Center Dave Wohlabaugh, who's recovering from offseason hip surgery, sat out the morning practice and did very limited work in the afternoon. Running back Marshall Faulk did light individual work in both the morning and afternoon. He took only a couple of repetitions during "team" periods in the afternoon - during a 9-on-7 running drill.

Offensive tackle Orlando Pace, embroiled in another contract impasse, was a no-show as expected.

All things considered, it was an efficient, businesslike start to Martz's fifth camp as head coach.

"The effort's terrific," Martz said, summing up Day 1. "But as we all know, effort's not enough, so we've got to do things right. And that's what we're here for."

Things were so businesslike that the absence of Kurt Warner in Macomb for the first time in seven years barely created a blip. Warner, of course, is now a New York Giant.

"To be honest with you, I wasn't even thinking about No. 13," Holt said. "He wasn't even in my thoughts. No disrespect to Kurt Warner. I think he's done a tremendous job for this football team and for this organization. God bless, Kurt. But that's behind us."