By Nick Wagoner
Senior Writer

MOBILE, Ala. – Just before the 2004 NFL Draft, Art Valero – then the running backs coach at Tampa Bay – pined for a young running back at Oregon State named Steven Jackson.

Valero scouted Jackson, flew to Corvallis, Oregon to watch him work out and believed that Jackson was the best running back in the draft. If given his choice, Valero and the Bucs would have taken Jackson and made him a centerpiece to the offense.

Alas, it wasn’t to be.

“I worked Steven out when he was coming out of college,” Valero said. “I went up to Oregon State and watched him work out and I was in love with him then. Unfortunately we weren’t in the running back business.”

Flash forward to the 2006 offseason. The Rams hired Scott Linehan as head coach. Linehan and Valero go way back to their days at the University of Idaho and Linehan wanted Valero to be one of the first additions to his new staff in St. Louis.

But the Bucs denied Valero permission to speak with the Rams and it didn’t work out.

“When Scott had originally gotten the job I was going to come to St. Louis and they wouldn’t let me out of my contract,” Valero said. “That was a bit disappointing.”

All disappointment was amended late last week when the Rams officially named Valero the running backs/assistant head coach, putting him in the position he had wanted two years ago and granting him his opportunity to finally coach Jackson.

After six seasons in Tampa Bay coaching running backs and tight ends, Valero’s contract expired when the Bucs fell to the New York Giants in a NFC Wild Card playoff game. Linehan, meanwhile, was in the process of making some changes to his coaching staff and the chance to re-unite in St. Louis finally came together.

The Rams moved quickly to hire Valero although his job title had yet to be decided. Finally, on Jan. 18, the Rams dismissed running backs coach Wayne Moses and installed Valero into that position.

“It just took on a life of its own after that,” Valero said. “He said ‘Hey, I have got an opportunity for you, we are going to restructure some things.’ So it worked out.”

Linehan calls Valero one of his “right hand men,” a guy that he trusts completely and believes in as a coach.

The duo first met at the University of Idaho in the early 1990s with Valero serving as offensive coordinator and Linehan handling the receiver position. They would join forces again at Louisville in 1998 where Linehan was offensive coordinator and Valero coached the offensive line and was assistant head coach until 2001.

As the Rams continue their search for an offensive coordinator, Linehan takes heart knowing that he has Valero and offensive line coach Steve Loney in place as coaches he can rely on.

“He and I go back a long time together and I feel he has the experience in all of these areas to help our overall team,” Linehan said. “Whoever I hire as a coordinator is going to benefit from having guys there that kind of know philosophically what we’d like to get done. I think that’s a big benefit.”

It’s been quite a whirlwind for Valero since his departure from Tampa Bay. First, he was unemployed then he was quickly hired by the Rams but he didn’t know what his position would be. Suddenly, he’s in Mobile with the Rams as the running backs/assistant head coach and trying to bring it all together. All of that without much chance to come up for air in the coming months.

While Valero and Linehan clearly have a strong relationship, Valero’s track record as a coach speaks for itself.

“It’s been crazy,” Valero said. “We were at the University of Idaho quite a ways back, but we worked together a long time ago and our paths went different directions. He went to Minnesota and I went to Tampa and we have always conversed and talked football over that time. It just worked out well. I hope he thought more of it not only as a friendship deal but a ‘Hey, this guy can really help us out in terms of getting our team squared away and getting them on the right page.’”

Valero got a first hand look at what he would be dealing with upon his arrival in St. Louis this season when the Rams visited Tampa Bay. Valero saw a patchwork offensive line pave the way for Jackson to pick up over 100 yards for the first time in 2007.

Valero kept tabs on the Rams and Linehan for the rest of the season and believes he is stepping into a situation that can turn for the better in a hurry.

“It looks like a great opportunity,” Valero said. “We have some really good people. Even playing the Rams this year I had a chance to look and watch and study them. We are really not that far away. There’s a situation that is on the way up and has great possibilities.”

The addition of Valero will be important considering the continued shift the Rams have had in offensive philosophy. The offense that was once known for its dynamic air show has become more of a ground-oriented unit with Jackson as the centerpiece.

And it was just two seasons ago that Jackson was the most productive back in the league in terms of yards from scrimmage under the tutelage of former running backs coach Wayne Moses. In other words, Valero has his work cut out for him.

“I think everybody is important,” Valero said. “Where you put your priorities and where your best players are in your eyes, I think that only helps out the entire offense and the entire team. If the emphasis is going to be on Steven Jackson then yes he is the bell cow that will get us there, but you also have to consider the great players they have there like Marc Bulger and the wideouts. I think what it will end up doing even though you can say this guy might be the emphasis, but one thing Scott has always done offensively is kept things balanced. I don’t think you can win in this league when you rely just on running the ball. You have to be able to make those big plays throwing it. But there’s no doubt the run can help the pass.”

Moses was well liked by his backs, especially Jackson, so Valero would do well to make a strong impression in a hurry on Jackson, Brian Leonard, Antonio Pittman and others.

For now, Valero’s focus is on helping improve the quality of the team and searching for solutions to improve the talent base. After two years of hoping to end up with Linehan in St. Louis and four years of wanting to work with Jackson, Valero is finally getting his chance.

“Now, it’s just a matter of having a chance to work with him,” Valero said. “I have had a chance to work with some great ones and he’s another great one. I feel very lucky and fortunate about that.”