• By Joe Lyons

Signed as a free agent rookie out of the University of Virginia before last season, Rodney McLeod battled to impress coaches and earn a spot on the Rams’ 53-man roster.

A year later, in his second training camp, not a lot has changed.

“I still have to prove myself,’’ the 23-year-old safety said just a few days into workouts at Rams Park. “I learned a lot last season and got better as the year went on. I’m definitely way more comfortable, mainly because I have a little better idea what to expect. At the same time, I can’t be satisfied; I know there’s still plenty of room for improvement and that’s why I’m pushing to get better technique-wise every day in practice.’’

McLeod, 5-foot-10, 195 pounds, played well enough through camp and in exhbition games to win a job and went on to make a solid impact on special teams. He led that unit with 16 tackles and also hauled in a 21-yard pass from punter Johnny Hekker on a fourth-and-4 from Rams’ 10-yard line late in the first half of the team’s 24-24 tie in San Francisco. The play didn’t result in points, but it did get the Rams out of a tough spot.

Following a strong offseason, McLeod is off to another good start in camp. In one early practice, he came up with a pair of athletic interceptions.

“I’ve had a couple of good days, made a couple of big plays, but I’ve also made some mistakes that need to be corrected,’’ he said. “Everything at this level is technical. Our technique has to be sound on every single play. That’s what we focus on during individual (drills) and then try to transition it over to team periods.’’

With Quintin Mikell released for salary-cap reasons and Craig Dahl leaving via free agency to sign with the *****, the Rams will have new starting safeties this year. Darian Stewart, a hard-hitting fourth-year player who made 13 starts in 2011, and rookie T.J. McDonald, a third-round draft choice, have been working with the No. 1 unit. Other safeties on the roster are McLeod, veteran Matt Giordano, second-year man Quinton Pointer, rookie free agents Cody Davis and Rashard Hall and Matt Daniels, a second-year pro working his way back from knee surgery.

“The safety position is definitely a battle; everybody is good and we’re all competing,’’ McLeod said. “I’m doing what I can, trying to improve and hopefully move up.’’

Tim Walton, the Rams’ new defensive coordinator, likes what he’s seen of McLeod and the other safeties.

“Rodney McLeod, he’s making a lot of plays. He’s running around and he’s a versatile guy who can help us in several different spots,’’ the coach said. “But we have a real good group of guys back there; we’re excited about their athletic ability and the energy they bring. And they’re young, which means they have room to grow.’’

McLeod, who only had “six or seven’’ plays from scrimmage a year ago, was struck by focus and the intensity of the NFL.

“Every play counts in the league; you can’t take a play off,’’ he said. “I feel that was one of the bigger adjustments for me, that and how accurate the quarterbacks are. Times when you’re covering a guy in college, they wouldn’t even think about throwing it, but here, they’re able to make those throws.’’

RAMBLINGS

Defensive end Chris Long became a Smack Cam victim, getting hit with a whipped-cream pie as the players signed autographs after Saturday’s practice.

To lighten the mood at camp, a number of Rams are taking part in the good-natured prank. Any player who declares himself part of the game can be “attacked’’ any time he’s in Rams gear. Plus, the “attack’’ must be videotaped.

“Oh no, I’m not in that game,’’ quarterback Sam Bradford said. “It’s great entertainment for everyone in the locker room who’s not in the game. I have a great time observing.”

• Keith Lyle, a safety on the 1999 Super Bowl team, has been visiting Rams camp the last couple of days. Lyle has written a book — “The Insider’s Playbook: Coaching Youth Football with Pro Fundamentals’’ — and is coaching high school football at Northside Christian in St. Petersburg, Fla., alongside former Tampa Bay fullback Mike Alstott.

PRACTICE SCHEDULE

After an off day, the team returns to Rams Park for open-to-the-public 3:30 p.m. workouts today and Tuesday. The Rams will make their preseason debut Thursday, at 7 p.m. against the Browns in Cleveland. KTVI (Channel 2) shows the contest.