By Bill Coats

Rams rookie guard Mark Setterstrom, suddenly a popular media target, was answering reporters' questions this past week when his locker-room neighbor piped up.

"Hey," he barked, "tell them how you used to watch Todd Steussie play for the Vikings."

With that, Setterstrom dissolved into laughter. The speaker was Todd Steussie.

"No joke," Setterstrom said. "When Steussie was with the Vikings, I used go to games and watch him when I was in grade school."

Setterstrom, who grew up in Northfield, Minn., now gets to watch Steussie up close. Setterstrom will line up at left guard and Steussie, a 36-year-old, 13-year NFL veteran, will be at left tackle Sunday when the Rams (4-5) square off with the Arizona Cardinals (2-9) at noon Sunday at the Edward Jones Dome.

The offensive line has been peppered with injuries, and the latest, Orlando Pace's season-ending triceps tear, created an opportunity for Setterstrom. Steussie moved into Pace's spot at left tackle, and Setterstrom has taken over for Steussie at left guard.

Inactive for the first nine games, Setterstrom got in for nine snaps two weeks ago at Carolina, then made his first start last Sunday in a 20-17 win over San Francisco.

It was a rousing debut for the seventh-round draft pick out of the University of Minnesota. "He graded out the highest of all the offensive linemen; that's pretty impressive," coach Scott Linehan said. "He was a big factor in our ability to run the football."

Back Steven Jackson pounded out 121 yards, including a 36-yard touchdown burst, on 23 carries. The week before, the Rams ran just eight times in a shutout by the Panthers.

Setterstrom was a four-year starter at Minnesota, where coach Glen Mason's approach was heavy on the run. St. Louisan Laurence Maroney, New England's first-round draft choice this year, topped 1,000 yards in each of his three seasons for the Gophers running behind Setterstrom and his pals up front.

"That's the reason we drafted him, and he's really worked hard to get himself ready to play," Linehan said. "He played as good as any rookie I've been around in his first start, that's for sure."

Rams quarterback Marc Bulger was sacked just twice by the *****. During the preceding five-game losing streak, he had been dropped 22 times.

"It was exciting to get out there, and I felt like I could hold my own," Setterstrom said. "It definitely gave me some confidence for the rest of this year and the future."

Football, always

Setterstrom described Northfield, a town of about 17,000 some 45 minutes south of the Twin Cities on the banks of the Cannon River, as "Small-town USA."

"We've got good schools, a couple of colleges (St. Olaf and Carleton) and a bunch of farm kids," he continued. His father, Keith, is an electrical engineer who works for the Malt-O-Meal Co., which has been producing cereals in Northfield since 1919. His mother, Vicki, is a nurse.

The Setterstrom brothers Ryan, now 30; Brent, 28; Chad, 26; and Mark, 22 were mainstays at Northfield High. Three also played football in college; Chad, who earned a biology degree at Northern Iowa, is a reserve guard with the New Orleans Saints.

Mark, who has a degree in civil engineering, also was a standout wrestler in high school. He went 27-1 as a senior, but when it came to college ...

"There was no decision; it was football from Day One," he said. "Wrestling was just something I did to help my football game. Wrestling is a good way to stay in shape."

When it came to what college, that also was a foregone conclusion.

"Minnesota all the way," Setterstrom said. "I committed my junior year. I didn't visit anywhere else, I didn't even talk to anybody else. Minnesota was it. I just wanted to play for my home state and stay close so my family could watch."

Setterstrom started every game for the Gophers, who went 32-18 during that span and put together four consecutive winning seasons for the first time since 1941-44. He twice earned All-Big Ten Conference honors, but in April, he wasn't selected until late in the final round, No. 242 overall out of 255 draftees.

No more waiting

After seeing considerable action in the preseason, Setterstrom went to work on two problem areas that affected his draft status: upper-body strength and pass-protection proficiency.

Extra time in the training room helped in the first area; time and practice paid off in the second.

"It really is so much technique and learning from the other guys, just the little things you can do to not get beat as often," he said. "It's a battle every play for 5 or 6 seconds. I'm just trying to be consistent with my game."