By Jim Thomas

A few weeks into his rookie training camp, Tye Hill knew he wasn't ready to be a starting cornerback in the NFL and conceded as much. But that was late August.

It's mid-November, and things have changed.

"I feel like I'm playing good enough to start," Hill said. "I think I've grown over the course of the season. If I were to be named the starter at any time, definitely this would be the best time."

Hill has seen plenty of action this season as the Rams' fifth defensive back in the nickel package. He started twice in early October in place of the injured Fakhir Brown and started last week in Seattle because the Seahawks came out in a three-wide receiver set.

But this Sunday's start in Carolina could be his coming-out party. Barring injury, he will be the starter for the rest of the season and well beyond. Travis Fisher, who started the first nine games at left corner, is out for the year with a fractured forearm. Fisher is scheduled for unrestricted free agency after this season and almost certainly has played his last game for the Rams.

It's Hill's turn now, and he says he's ready.

"I definitely didn't want to get the job the way I got it," Hill said. "But it's very important for me to go ahead and (establish) myself as the starter. Because right now, they need me."

Hill feels he's better equipped to handle a starting job than he was nearly six weeks ago when he replaced Brown.

"I've got a lot of experience under my belt playing against some good receivers," Hill said. "I actually know how to play now."

Which includes being more focused on the field, and being able to take coaching and translate it into performance. Hill is learning the importance of technique and consistency. In college, he didn't have to be perfect all the time. In the NFL, you do. Or you'll get burned sooner rather than later.

"Tye's gotten much better," coach Scott Linehan said. "He's more confident. He understands that he's got to stay within the scheme and not fall into any old habits, or rookie habits."

This certainly isn't the week to regress, not with Carolina wide receivers Steve Smith and Keyshawn Johnson staring him down Sunday.

Smith "is a playmaker," Hill said. "He goes and gets the ball. He doesn't wait for the ball to come to him. He's explosive."

And Johnson?

"He's the only receiver to go No. 1 (overall)," Hill said. "He's lived up to those expectations. He's a great receiver. He's a big body."

(Actually, Nebraska wide receiver Irving Fryar also went No. 1 overall, in 1984.)

The Panthers move their receivers around, depending on formation and play call. So Hill is likely to spend time covering both Smith and Johnson.

"They line up anywhere," Hill said. "You never know where they're going to be. You've got to really be careful. I have to be fundamentally sound."

Adding to the moment is the fact that Sunday will be a homecoming of sorts. Hill is from St. George, S.C., and considered the Panthers and the Atlanta Falcons his "hometown" teams growing up.

Hill says more than 100 family and friends will be in the stands. That might leave the small town of St. George abandoned Sunday afternoon.

"They're going to have to cut out the lights," Hill joked.

Members of his immediate family won't be hard to find in Bank of America Stadium. They'll be the ones wearing the Tye Hill replica jerseys.

Put all those factors together the starting assignment, the homecoming, the quality of the competition and Hill might float out onto the field Sunday.

"I'm probably more amped up for this game than for any other game," Hill said. "It's definitely going to be a big game for me. I know I'm going to play a major role in how this game turns out."

Keeping Smith from going wild would be a good place to start. Opposing quarterbacks have tried to pick on Hill, something he expected going into his rookie season.

"Until I start making plays, getting interceptions, breakups, they're going to come at me," Hill said. "And I don't blame 'em."

That should be the case again Sunday, but Hill doesn't sound worried. "This is going to be fun," he said.