Undrafted Armstrong gets new position with Rams
By Jim Thomas
There was a time not that long ago when Ray Ray Armstrong was considered very much an ascending football player. After his sophomore year at Miami he was considered a potential high-round NFL draft pick — if not a first-rounder.
Although he started just three games that season (2010), Armstrong was very productive from the safety position, registering 79 tackles, three interceptions and 4½ tackles for loss. But he subsequently got caught up in the still-ongoing NCAA investigation into wrongdoing in the Hurricanes’ football and basketball programs. His football career slowly unraveled.
In his junior season, 2011, Armstrong was suspended four games for accepting improper benefits while being recruited. Later in the season, he was suspended for the Florida State game after tweeting about having dinner with Miami boosters. Next came the hammer — he was dismissed from school in July 2012 for unspecified reasons (but widely believed to be related to the NCAA investigation).
He tried to transfer to Faulkner University, an NAIA school in Montgomery, Ala., but his eligibility was denied.
So when he stepped onto the field for rookie minicamp Friday afternoon at Rams Park, it was his first practice as an official member of a team in more than a year. If he makes the Rams’ final roster, it will be nearly two years since his last game.
But if he’s to make the team, Armstrong will do it the hard way as an undrafted rookie. An undrafted rookie making a position switch. The Rams are looking at Armstrong as an outside linebacker.
“He’s going to start there at linebacker, yeah,” coach Jeff Fisher said after Friday’s practice. “He’s just a really good athlete. He’s been off for a while. He’s in good shape. He participated in bowl games. He’s done some pro days. He got caught up in a difficult situation and he’s happy for the opportunity.”
He certainly is.
“It’s a lifelong dream — you want to play in the ‘League,’ ” Armstrong said. “So just coming out here, just giving it my all and hopefully making that 53, it’s something that anybody would want.”
Armstrong said he was more excited than nervous Friday. He wasn’t hard to spot on the field. He was the guy wearing jersey No. 50 with the huge chip on his shoulder.
“Extra motivation and an extra chip,” Armstrong said.
The judgmental would say Armstrong has only himself to blame for all that’s happened. The sympathetic might call him a byproduct of an archaic system that leaves the NCAA and many colleges swimming in money on the efforts of athletes such as Armstrong.
“I believed in myself when nobody did,” Armstrong said. “I always believed in myself. So whenever the opportunity came, I was just gonna run with it.”
Armstrong wanted no part Friday of questions about his indiscretions in Miami.
“I’m done with that — that chapter of my life,” Armstrong said. “I’m looking forward to being a Ram. I’m coming out here working hard and trying to focus in on the future now.”
But because of what happened in Miami, he’s starting from the ground floor (rookie free agent) instead of the penthouse (high-round draft pick).
“I knew it would be hard,” Armstrong said. “But I’m here now. I’ve got the opportunity to do what I was supposed to do and come out and prove myself.”
At Miami, Armstrong was big for a safety and known as a big hitter. In March, when he was allowed to participate in Miami’s pro day, Armstrong weighed in at 216 pounds on a 6-3 frame. His times in the 40 there weren’t ideal for the safety position in the NFL — 4.69 and 4.72 seconds. But at weakside linebacker, those aren’t bad times.
The linebacker position isn’t totally foreign to Armstrong, who played the position at Seminole High in Sanford, Fla. He also played quarterback, throwing the game-winning touchdown pass in the state championship game.
The Rams didn’t spring the position switch on him at the last minute. They told him that was in their plans during the process of signing him as a rookie free agent two weeks ago.
“I said whatever it takes, it’s fine with me,” Armstrong said.
Even with the selection of linebacker Alec Ogletree in the first round of the draft, the Rams don’t have the great depth at linebacker on their roster. So Armstrong, who has beefed up to 227 pounds, has a chance to earn a backup job.
“He has prototypical WIL (weakside) linebacker size and speed,” general manager Les Snead said. “With your backup linebackers, you’re trying to find people who can cover kicks. So we’ll kind of look at both combinations (linebacker and safety) and see, and make the fit.”
The best way for backup linebackers or safeties, to make an NFL roster is via strong special teams play. When it comes to special teams, Armstrong has coaching experience there _ kind of.
Even though he was denied football eligibility at Faulkner, Armstrong worked out with the team last season just to be around football. On game days, he was in charge of special teams. “Coach gave me that freedom,” Armstrong said.
Obviously, it wasn’t the same as playing.
“It’s difficult because you’ve been playing your whole life and it’s something you love to do,” Armstrong said. “So to not be able to play, and just sitting back and watching, it was kind of frustrating at first. But I got over it and I’m looking to the future.”