May 25, 2010 6:37 PM
By RON CLEMENTS
The Telegraph

ST. LOUIS — Steve Spagnuolo is a defensive-minded coach.

In his first season as the head coach of the St. Louis Rams, the architect of the New York Giants’ Super Bowl-winning defense watched his Rams finish 29th defensively out of 32 teams during a 1-15 season.

With players entering their second season in Spagnuolo’s system, the coach is pleased with what he’s seen so far during organized team activities.

"We’re certainly ahead of where we were last year with the communication and getting things set, and people feeling comfortable," Spagnuolo said after Tuesday’s practice at Rams Park. "Defense is all reactionary, so when you eliminate the learning curve of thinking instead of reacting, you usually play better defense and play faster."

Anchoring that defense is second-year linebacker James Laurinaitis, who has been a fixture at Rams Park since the season finished in January.

"He must have texted me 10 times during that period when they were off asking, ‘Is there something I can do? Send me film. What do you need me to do?’" Spagnuolo said of the former Ohio State linebacker. "He’s everything you see."

The Rams added two more Ohio State linebackers in the offseason, with Na’il Diggs and Bobby Carpenter joining Laurinaitis and Larry Grant. Spagnuolo said he was impressed with the size of the 6-foot-4, 240-pound Diggs and how easily Carpenter transitioned from the 3-4 system in Dallas to Spagnuolo’s 4-3.

"The thing that’s helped him is the fact that he’s familiar with some of the guys already," Spagnuolo said of Carpenter, whose career at Ohio State overlapped those of Laurinaitis and Grant. "They bonded right away. They’ve got that Buckeye thing going on."

Diggs is one of only six players over the age of 30 on the Rams’ current 91-man roster. Spagnuolo said the "more experienced players" like Diggs and free agent acquisitions Hank Fraley and Fred Robbins can teach the younger players "how to be a pro."

Spagnuolo and Robbins, a former Giants defensive tackle, have "high expectations" for the season in terms of productivity and leadership on a young team. Robbins, a 33-year-old 10-year veteran, was signed as a free agent in March.

This is the second week of OTAs at Rams Park. The Rams practiced Monday and Tuesday and will go again on Thursday. That practice is closed to the media.

After this week the Rams have three OTA sessions remaining and a mandatory mini-camp from June 10-12. The roster is currently at 91 players, but must be down to 80 by the start of training camp in late July.

While the weather last week was mild, the first two practices this week have been in unusually warm 90-degree heat.

"It was a little hot," Spagnuolo said. "When you walked out and felt the heat, it was a good opportunity to get that feel, a little pre-training camp feel, and see which guys would fight through it."

Spagnuolo said the team responded well to the heat, but there were several drops on Monday and multiple false starts in Tuesday’s practice.

Rookie tight end Fendi Onobun, who only played one season of football at the University of Houston following a four-year basketball career at the University of Arizona, was the victim of several drops in Monday’s practice.

Fellow rookie tight end Michael Hoomanawanui of Illinois has displayed impressive hands and added another one-handed grab on Tuesday.

"We saw him make those kind of catches on Illinois film," Spagnuolo said. "He’s got that in him. He’s got a good set of hands."

Hoomanawanui’s one-handed snare over the middle on Tuesday came off the right hand of rookie quarterback Sam Bradford. The No. 1 overall pick in April’s draft is one of three new Rams quarterbacks. Only Keith Null, a sixth-round pick in the 2009 draft, returns.

"We’ve got three new quarterbacks and they’ve got to get the timing down," wide receiver Laurent Robinson said of Bradford, fellow rookie Thaddeus Lewis and 10-year veteran A.J. Feeley. "They’ve got to feel how we run our routes and how we come out of our breaks."

The Rams began OTAs with 13 receivers on the original 96-man roster. With the release of Nick Moore and Roderick Owens on Monday, and the removal of the WR tag from cornerback Cord Parks, the Rams still have 10 receivers. Robinson and Brandon Gibson said the position battle will push everyone to perform better.

"This is what we live for, competition," Robinson said. "We’re all excited about it."

The Rams receivers were decimated by injuries to Robinson, Donnie Avery, Brooks Foster and Keenan Burton last year. Burton was limited in practice last week, still nursing his right knee, but he returned to team drills this week.

"Sometimes the best rehab is getting in there and doing drills," Spagnuolo said.

Avery played through multiple injuries last season, but has added some extra muscle for the 2010 season.

"I like the fact that he did that," Spagnuolo said. "I think it makes you more durable. You get whacked around pretty good when you catch the football, so I think that’s going to help him out."

Gibson dislocated a finger in Tuesday’s practice, but returned. Offensive lineman John Greco was limited on Tuesday after straining a pectoral muscle on Monday.

Spagnuolo cited Greco and Fraley as needed "swing guys."

"We want that unit to be cohesive, and the one thing John does is, he does go over and snap the ball once in awhile," Spagnuolo said. "We need versatile guys, who can play center and the two guards. We’re expecting John to do that.

"Hank, here he is a veteran guy working with the second and third, and doesn’t complain one bit," Spagnuolo said. "I’ll watch him rallying those young guys together and pumping guys up. We need that."

Cornerback Quincy Butler was not at Tuesday’s practice. The third-year veteran spoke with Spagnuolo after Monday’s practice to take a personal day on Tuesday.

Both Chip Rosenbloom and Stan Kroenke are in Dallas this week for the NFL owners’ meetings. Rosenbloom is the current majority owner. Kroenke is the minority owner who is trying to buy 100 percent control of the team.