Wednesday, September 7, 2005

By Nick Wagoner

Senior Writer

As center Andy McCollum strolled to his usual spot in the middle of the Rams’ offensive line last week against Detroit, he took a glance to each side of the line and couldn’t help but get a familiar yet strange feeling.

“It’s weird,” McCollum said. “We were in the middle of the game the other night and we were like ‘This is the same line, just a different Tucker over there than we had way back.’ It’s kind of weird, but it’s good. I know what these guys are doing, they know what I’m doing and we’ve been together for awhile. We have worked together in the past so I think it will work out real well.”

That’s right; the Rams enter Sunday’s season-opener against San Francisco with four/fifths of the starting offensive line that the team employed for most of its successful run of about five years ago.

To McCollum’s left he sees tackle Orlando Pace and guard Tom Nütten and to his right he finds guard Adam Timmerman. The only new addition is right tackle Rex Tucker and even he brings back a certain sense of déjà vu for McCollum.

“It’s freaky,” McCollum said. “It’s like Ryan’s clone over there. I don’t know how many times I’ve actually called him Ryan.”

Ryan, of course, is Rex’s brother and the former Rams’ tackle who started for those same teams that employed the other four linemen.

But Rex Tucker’s rise to the top of the depth chart at right tackle is far different from that of his brother. Tucker spent his first six seasons in Chicago as a left guard, even earning Pro Bowl alternate status in 2001.

With uncertainty about Nütten’s status for this year and the continuous question mark that has been right tackle, Tucker figured to fill one of those spots. But all signs pointed to Tucker plugging the hole at the guard position and not the one at right tackle.

“This has been my nightmare for three years,” coach Mike Martz said. “There are certainly issues on this football team. We kept losing all of these defensive players and we know that through the draft and free agency we are scrambling around to find secondary people, linebackers and you just keep putting off the offensive line issue, you just try to make due.”

The Rams did their best to make due last year, trying four players at left guard and two more at right tackle. Those players included an admittedly out-of-shape Nütten and the constantly in motion Blaine Saipaia, among others.

To slow the revolving door at right tackle the Rams drafted Alex Barron with the 19th choice in the NFL Draft, but that plan went on hiatus after Barron struggled to adapt to the right side and, more important, failed to arrive at training camp on time.

After Nütten decided to return before the opening of camp and the emergence of fourth-round rookie Claude Terrell at left guard, Tucker appeared poised for a competition at left guard. Instead, he struggled in the early going and the need for a right tackle remained.

Knowing that one right tackle named Tucker had worked on that side before, Martz decided to give Tucker a shot.
It didn’t take long for Tucker to delve into everything that is the right tackle position. He immediately began to work with Hall of Fame tackle Jackie Slater on the intricacies of the position.

“Talking to Rex, as soon as he went out there he just immediately felt a lot more comfortable out there for whatever reason,” Martz said. “He’s picked it up. Jackie has done a great job of mentoring him about playing the right tackle position and who else is better to talk to than Jackie Slater, you know. He’s really helped him with his pass sets and just the technical aspects of footwork and hands and the punch and those things. He’s going to make some mistakes but all he’s going to do is get better and better and better.

“To move him out there, looking at him out there he is just like a duck to water. That’s where he belongs.”

Tucker took the momentum gained from his training sessions with Slater and the experience and knowledge of his linemates and started to get better and better as the preseason wore on. The guy who was pushed around by defensive end Leonard Little when he first moved outside was now holding his own.

Tucker proved a dominant run blocker and everything seemed to click for him against the Lions. If that performance wasn’t enough, he went out and performed well against the Chiefs in the preseason finale.

Tucker said a big part of his adjustment to right tackle can be attributed to the fun he has working with the likes of Timmerman, Nütten, McCollum and Pace.

“They are great to play with and I enjoy it a lot,” Tucker said. “I’m sure Ryan was right along with them. There are always guys like that and it’s good to have guys like that. I enjoy them a lot.

“The guys that have been here and played, I mean, you really can’t say anything bad about them. You just go down the line, Adam, Andy, Tom, Orlando; I mean they have won championships, tons of them.”

If Tucker’s performance at right tackle remained in question, he received an endorsement from starting quarterback Marc Bulger on Wednesday that should incite plenty of confidence in the potential of the St. Louis offense.

“I think the last two weeks they have made a lot of strides just with Tuck being at right tackle,” Bulger said. “We’ve moved so many guys through that position throughout camp and with Adam being hurt a little bit earlier in camp it was a little bit unsettling. I think the last two weeks have pretty much set in there and Tucker has gotten better and better. I think we have some depth there that we haven’t had in the past.”

Now that the move to right tackle seems to have Tucker and the offensive line sufficiently settled in, there was just one more hurdle for Tucker to clear to fit in with McCollum, Timmerman and Nütten, AKA the Doughnut Brothers. He had to understand the fine art of heating and eating the food that is the namesake of the offensive line.

“He didn’t need much help on that,” McCollum said. “He knew what to do. I think his brother trained him a little bit. Nobody can hang with Adam as far as pure amount of donuts consumed, but he’s doing pretty well for a new guy.”