By Bill Coats

Examining a photo of the 1992 Stewart Middle School football team, Ryan Pickett's eyes brightened when he located the chubby youngster in the No. 53 jersey. "I've been playing ball since I was a little boy," Pickett mused, "and I just knew I could do it."

By "do it," he meant be successful in the NFL. Pickett, a defensive tackle, is in his fifth season with the Rams. If the first two games are a true barometer, it could be his best. "If he can stay healthy, I think he's as good as any young tackle in the league," Rams defensive end Tyoka Jackson said.

Pickett, 25, had a big year in 2002, when he collected 107 tackles, second on the team. But he suffered a high-ankle sprain early in the '03 season, and it became a nagging encumbrance. His tackle totals dipped to 74 that year and 81 last season.

The ankle is strong again, a sore back that bothered him during training camp has cleared up, and the 6-foot-2, 330-pound Pickett has been pounding away. He has 16 tackles, second to linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa's team-leading 19 and 12 more than any other interior defender.

"He had a good game against San Francisco, and he had a really good game Sunday" at Arizona, fellow lineman Damione Lewis said. "I'm really happy for him."

Pickett directed considerable credit to the revamped linebackers corps, where veteran free agents Chris Claiborne and Dexter Coakley joined Tinoisamoa. "They're getting up quick, so we're not on double-teams as long, and that's enabled us to make more plays," Pickett explained.

The effect has been dramatic: The Rams rank third in the 32-team league against the run; last season, they were No. 29.

"A little rowdy"

Several Ohio State coaches surrounded him and the speaker phone was engaged when an anxious Pickett, then 18, dialed up his parents from Columbus. "I told them, 'I'm going to Ohio State,'" Pickett recalled. "And there was just silence. They were like, 'Son, come home and let's talk about it.'"

Ryan is the youngest of Rubin and Mae Pickett's four children. "They always considered me the baby," he said. As such, he was a favorite target for brothers Rubin Jr. and Booker, and sister Suphia. "Yeah, yeah, they used to dog him," Rubin Sr. said. "They were always on Ryan to get meaner, to get tougher. I think it worked."

Lewis said Pickett's on-field temperament belies his otherwise laid-back demeanor. "He gets a little rowdy out there," Lewis said.

Most of the family still lives about 25 miles north of Tampa in Zephyrhills, Fla., which Pickett described as "a little country town." Pickett prompted considerable municipal pride - the mayor organized a ceremony and issued a proclamation when Ryan became the first Zephyrhills High player drafted by the NFL.

Pickett was a three-year starter on both lines during a period when the Bulldogs went 27-6. So dominant was Pickett that coach Tom Fisher moved him to middle linebacker his senior year to keep teams from directing their plays away from him. He wound up with a school-record 142 tackles.

"Opposing coaches would shake their head every time he would run one of their backs down," Fisher told the St. Petersburg Times. "They just couldn't believe a 300-pound middle linebacker could do what he did."

Offers poured in, and Pickett was deciding between Florida and Florida State. Then John Cooper, the Ohio State coach at the time, came to town.

"He sat down with my family, and I felt more of a bond with him than the other coaches who came to visit," Pickett said.

Said Pickett's father: "I'm a Gators fan; I wanted him to go to Florida. The old man don't always get his wish."

Early pressure

Pickett was a three-year starter for the Buckeyes. He entered the draft after his junior year, and the Rams made him the 29th overall pick in 2001. The pressure of being a first-rounder weighed on him. "My first year, it was pretty rough," he said.

But coach Mike Martz was willing to wait. "When we drafted these guys No. 1, the first thing everybody said - and I believe it - was that for a tackle, it usually takes three years to really establish yourself," Martz said.

"It does take awhile to find yourself," Pickett said. "The older I'm getting, the game is slowing down each year. Now ... yeah, it feels good."