Thursday, May 17, 2012

For the first time as Rams head coach, Jeff Fisher has his rookies and veterans together on the practice field.

The gang's all here.

On Tuesday, the first day of the full-squad practices, Fisher had the rookies introduce themselves to the veterans in the team auditorium at Rams Park. Fisher had the rookies provide more information than just the basics.

"You ask the newcomer to stand up and give his name, position, school," Fisher said after Wednesday's practice. "His favorite movie. Name of his first pet, and what happened to it. And his nickname."

What about those pets?

"Quite a few hamsters, turtles," Fisher reported.

What happened to them?

"A couple killed by trains and buses," he replied. "Somebody's dog got killed by a train. We had one — his parents just put (the pet) 'down' that morning. You know, it's sad. But it was good introductions."

Cornerback Cortland Finnegan, who spent his first five seasons playing for Fisher in Tennessee, said it's the coach's way of establishing team chemistry and camaraderie.

"It's just part of the ritual," Finnegan said. "It's always something Coach Fisher breaks in there for giggles and to break the ice."

Many of the new players were given nicknames at the introductory session. Finnegan said one rookie was dubbed Gonzo — after the Muppet character — but Finnegan wouldn't reveal Gonzo's identity.

Finnegan said his nickname as a Titans rookie in 2006 was Fido, because like a dog chasing cars, he had a habit of going after things.

"I played nickel and I would always run after the wrong guy," Finnegan said.

Apparently, that's as far as Fisher goes when it comes to rookie initiation. For example, the time-honored NFL tradition of having rookies sing in front of the vets doesn't exist for a Fisher team.

"They're not going to sing," Fisher said. "That's one thing they're not going to do. We don't haze here. They're here to help us win."

With more than 80 players on the field Wednesday, rookies and veterans alike were inundated with X's and O's.

"We added a bunch of things today," Fisher said. "We've got a lot of 'base' in, we've got third down, and red zone. Friday, we'll probably do some 2-minute. So we're throwing a lot at 'em. But they've responded very well and they're practicing well together."

This is the third coaching change in six years for the Rams, and a major roster upheaval has taken place each time. But the shake-up engineered by Fisher, general manager Les Snead and executive vice president of football operations Kevin Demoff has been greater than what took place in Steve Spagnuolo's inaugural season in 2009, or Scott Linehan's first Rams team in 2006.

To a large degree, dozens of strangers must get to know each other, learn to work with each other, and trust each other on the football field.

"You know what, we're building," Finnegan said. "I like where we're going. We're pushing each other. We look to be a good football team. If we can all push each other, I like what we're going to do this year."

As part of a Tennessee draft class that included college stars Vince Young and LenDale Young, Finnegan remembers being star-struck his first couple of practices as a rookie, as if he was just glad to be there as a seventh-round selection out of tiny Samford University.

As he prepares for his fifth NFL season, defensive end Chris Long says he can't even remember his first few days as a professional in 2008.

"It's a blur," Long said. "Time moves fast in this league, and it's just important to take advantage of your opportunities because it does move fast."

Fisher wants the rookies to move fast on the field, but because none of the spring practices can take place in pads, he wants them to work smart as well.

"There's a fine line between practicing with and without pads," Fisher said. "What we want to accomplish over the next couple days is relearn how to practice at a great tempo without pads and protect each other."

As linebacker James Laurinaitis said, the last thing a young player needs to do is get a teammate hurt trying to impress the coaches.

"There's a fine line of blitzing full speed to get close to Sam (Bradford), but realizing that if you end up close enough to where his hand falls on your helmet, that's a real fast way to get cut," he said.

With enough players to go four-deep on the depth chart, getting enough practice repetitions isn't easy given league rules limiting the amount of practice time in the spring. Because of that, Fisher and his staff squeezed in an extra period with just the rookies Wednesday, while the veterans stretched on another field at the end of practice.

Every last rep counts for rookies such as offensive guard Rokevious Watkins, a fifth-round pick from South Carolina. The thing that stood out the most about the first two practice days with the veterans was "how fast the game is going," Watkins said. "I'm trying to transition into game speed. It's like bullets out there when you're dealing with the veterans. The more you know, the faster you can play."

At least Watkins already has a nickname, one given him by South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier: Rok — as in Rock. Other Rams rookies, including the mysterious Gonzo, weren't so lucky.