It was the second day of padded practices and rookie running back Isaiah Pead was still feeling his way through his first week of training camp as a NFL player.
To that point, he’d taken part in just four full squad practices in camp and without pads, things had rarely elevated to any sort of physical place.
But it became evident right away that the addition of shoulder pads was only going to ratchet up the intensity and aggressiveness during practice. Early in the first padded practice last Thursday, the defense had sent a message to the offense that it wasn’t going to be afraid to lay an extra blow or two along the way.
Cornerback Cortland Finnegan and linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar had dropped starting running back Steven Jackson after the whistle. Guard Harvey Dahl had gone in to mix it up and protect Jackson.
The next day, the hard feelings carried over and end Eugene Sims had planted Pead at or after the whistle. So the Rams offense huddled back up and decided they needed to increase their intensity, not anything malicious of course, but to let the defense know they had no intention of being pushed around.
“The play before that it got a little heated as far as offense versus defense,” Pead said. “That’s how training camp is. So when we were in the huddle we wanted to make a statement.”
Pead got the ball on the next play and darted off the left edge toward the sideline as he turned the corner, the only player in his way was rookie cornerback Janoris Jenkins, a guy Pead formed a quick friendship with after the draft.
“I had a one on one opportunity on the sideline,” Pead said. “You are taught as a running back don’t run out of bounds and get what you can get. It just so happened to be Janoris.”
With no intention of going out of bounds, Pead dropped his shoulder and lowered the boom to his good friend, catching Jenkins just below the chin and drawing all kinds of oohs and aahs from his teammates and the assembled crowd. Jackson perked up and ran to greet Pead.
“That’s always kind of been a silent chip on my shoulder, so to speak, all of my career,” Pead said. “With my size and speed, I get characterized as a scat back. I am a running back and if it comes down to running past somebody or getting physical in pass protection or on the sideline, whatever it takes. I am a running back and I’ll do whatever any running back would do.”
As mentor Jackson beamed with pride, Jenkins retreated to the sideline and Pead returned to the huddle for the next play. At 5’10, 197 pounds, Pead not only sent a message on behalf of the offense but also one that made it clear he believes he can carry the load of a full time back, not just some luxury who checks in on third down every once in a while.
It also served as notice that Pead is starting to grow comfortable as the backup to Jackson who will have a lot thrown his way in his rookie season.
“He’s done some real good things during the first week, not only his run skills but pass protection and catching the ball and finishing and doing those kind of things,” coach Jeff Fisher said. “He’s still got a lot to learn. He’s running around the building and gets lost every once in a while. He’s going to get a lot of work in the preseason, not only Pead but all those guys.”
While Jackson is likely to get some work in preseason games, it’s a fairly safe bet that the lion’s share of the work will go to the rookie Pead. Considering the time Pead missed in the spring because of league rules that prevent a player from reporting to his team until that player’s class has finished its coursework and what he calls the mental mistakes that have plagued him early in camp, those repetitions will come in handy moving forward.
A little more than a week into his first training camp, Pead has had his share of struggles by his own admission. Although he did his best to keep his head in the playbook while he was away in the spring, nothing can replicate the reps he lost during that time.
Pead held up just fine in the first week but on Monday had a few of the mental errors to which he referred.
“I am still trying to minimize the mistakes out here,” Pead said. “I’ve made some mistakes but it’s going good. Yeah, we try to move fast and catch defenses off guard and in order to move fast you have got to be able to think fast and sometimes I think a little too fast and forget little details. But that’s why we are out here practicing.”
Not that Pead doesn’t understand the material he’s being taught. But for most rookies the most difficult part of their first training camp is processing what they’re taught in meetings, bringing it out on to the field and doing it without having to stop and think too much.
That part of the process has been difficult and though Pead refuses to make excuses, he does believe the missed time in the spring has been at least partially responsible for the aforementioned errors.
“Some might just be natural rookie mistakes and some might be from that because for other guys this is their second or third time repping it and it’s my first time,” Pead said. “But it’s not an excuse. It’s my job to learn it and know it. I have got to go out and do it.”
Pead has also been hit with the weight of his many responsibilities. It’s not as simple as just taking a handoff and trying to run to the end zone. One of the areas he had repeatedly said he needs to improve is his blitz pickup and pass protection.
As evidenced by his lack of hesitance to play physical, it’s not a matter of willingness but a matter of understanding what his responsibilities are, recognizing who he is supposed to pick up and figuring out where and when those blitzes will come from.
The Rams defense does a lot of blitzing and has thus far given Pead plenty of good looks to learn before the real games begin on Sunday in Indianapolis.
“I am starting to get it now as far as who is my certain protection on certain plays,” Pead said. “It’s coming along real easy but like I said sometimes I do think too fast and make a mental mistake. I might make two or three every day at practice but I have to get that down to zero come Sunday.
“Not only am I looking for my man but also looking to see if he’s coming or not. It’s just a matter of getting on the same page as everybody, thinking fast, not holding up the vets or the rest of the offense and minimizing the mistakes.”
Even just in one day on Tuesday, Pead took a step forward in the eyes of his coach.
"He took a step today," Fisher said. "He started off a little slow in the special teams and we had to get his body going and somehow, some way jumpstart him a little bit. He finished that practice well."
Pead is also getting every opportunity to win a job in the return game. Danny Amendola is likely to get the starting nod against the Colts, at least as a punt returner but Pead is part of a group along with Amendola and Jenkins that should get looks in those roles early in the preseason opener.
Regardless of how that all plays out, Pead is looking to make the most of his opportunities, no matter if it’s running the ball, catching it, picking up the blitz, returning kicks or punts or even recovering fumbles.
Simply put, Pead is just ready for a chance to show what he can do when the lights come on.
“I’m ready to play,” Pead said. “It’s another chance to play football. You work hard for days like that, to go out and have fun. I am ready for my first NFL game. It’s a competition, it’s a game and I can’t wait to strap up and it’s going to be show time.”