Also has success making switch to middle linebacker
BY STEVE KORTE
News-Democrat

ST. LOUIS --
While the education of St. Louis Rams middle linebacker Will Witherspoon continues on the football field, he's completed his college degree.

Witherspoon will graduate from the University of Georgia with a degree in Family and Consumer Sciences on Saturday, five years after he left school for the NFL.

Getting his college degree was a matter of principle for Witherspoon, who will turn 27 on Aug. 19.

"To me, especially having kids at home, you can't look back and say, 'Well, you know you have to go to college,'" Witherspoon said. "They'll look at you like, 'You didn't finish.' That was a big thing for me. That's one of those things you promise your parents."

Witherspoon won't be attending graduation ceremonies at the University of Georgia because he'll be celebrating his daughter Maya's first birthday.

Witherspoon was originally an agricultural engineering major. He switched majors because many of the courses he needed to complete his degree were offered only in the fall and winter, which conflicted with the NFL season.

Witherspoon said he lost about 40 credit hours when he changed his major to Family and Consumer Sciences, which he described as being a lot like urban planning.

Witherspoon said he was no different than any other college student, though he didn't live in a dormitory.

"I had my condo just off campus," Witherspoon said. "I could ride my bike to class every day. I was good to go."

As an NFL player with a six-year, $33 million contract, Witherspoon couldn't avoid being a big man on campus.

"I had to talk about it in my economics class," Witherspoon said. "It was one of the teachers that I have known forever, and she's like, 'I want you to explain to these people what your world is really like.' I think we only had two other people in my class -- one guy was about 60 years old coming back to school and the other was an old lady just going into a second career -- with real-world experience."

Witherspoon has learned a lot in the last year, especially on the football field after switching to middle linebacker from weak-side linebacker.

Witherspoon had a team-leading 136 tackles last season, but he also bore some of the blame for the team's troubles against the run. The Rams ranked 31st among the NFL's 32 teams in run defense last season.

"As far as myself and the entire defense, I think we're leaps and bounds from where we were last year," Witherspoon said. "Last year, we come in and I don't even know how many new starters we had just on the defense and you have guys speaking 12 different languages, coming from five or six different teams. That is a big change, and everybody is trying to get on the same page. Old habits die hard in certain situations so sometimes we weren't all on the same page."

Rams coach Scott Linehan said Witherspoon looks more comfortable manning the middle during training camp this year compared to last year.

"The second year is a big difference for any position, but for a guy who is playing in the middle and getting all those reads, who has been playing a lot of (weak-side) linebacker most of his life, there is a comfort level or a learning curve," Linehan said. "He is much more comfortable. Now, he is a 'Mike' linebacker, where before he was a guy who was a 'Will' playing the 'Mike' and is learning it on the run. It is a great way to utilize what he does best, which is run sideline to sideline. Now he is doing the little things and the mental things that he needs to do as a middle backer."

Witherspoon applauded the additions of rookie defensive tackle Adam Carriker and veteran defensive end James Hall on the defensive line.

"The defensive line is definitely looking good," Witherspoon said. "Adam Carriker has really adjusted well in there. He is doing some great things in there for us. James Hall, he's done crazy stuff out there. You kind of say to yourself, 'Wow, what just happened here? How did he just do that?' I think we're going to have a great D-line and a good mix of guys who can come in a game and give La'Roi (Glover) and James a breath