Five questions with . . . Rams linebacker Will Witherspoon
By Bill Coats

FILE PHOTO: Will Witherspoon, a linebacker, stretches before practice.

Since London Fletcher left as a free agent after the 2001 season, the St. Louis Rams have struggled to find a suitable replacement at middle linebacker. Experiments with Jamie Duncan, Robert Thomas and Chris Claiborne fizzled, and the team entered the offseason again seeking to fill that vital position.

In March, the Rams plunked down $33 million on their latest venture: Will Witherspoon, a free agent who signed a six-year deal. Witherspoon, 25, spent the previous four seasons with the Carolina Panthers, where he had established himself as one of the NFL's top young weakside linebackers.

At 6-feet-1 and 231 pounds, Witherspoon might be slightly small to play inside, but coach Scott Linehan explained that he's more concerned with speed than bulk at that spot.

During minicamp this weekend at Rams Park, Witherspoon answered five questions from the Post-Dispatch:

Q: You played some inside linebacker with the Panthers. How is the move to a full-time role there going?

A: "I'm feeling good. It's nothing I haven't done before. It's just something I have to adjust to, something I have to adapt to. I have to shift my mind-set from outside to inside."

Q: You're having to learn a new system here. Do you feel like a rookie again?

A: "To some extent, yes. It's mostly a terminology deal, learning the new phrases and what things mean. But I think this is going to be a great system. We're making strides every day. We're still installing, getting a lot of things in, but day to day, things are improving and guys are getting better at understanding everything that you need to do and relating to the various things."

Q: Several teams were interested in you. Beyond the financial considerations, what led to your decision to come to the Rams?

A: "I definitely felt like I was coming to a team where I was going to make a difference and the team was moving in the right direction. I knew that the (defensive) system was going to be installed in a way that I knew guys were going to want to be here ... as part of a team that's going to be turning things around."

Q: A number of other new faces have joined the defense, including fellow free agents La'Roi Glover, Corey Chavous and Fakhir Brown. How is the group melding?

A: "The coaching staff has done a great job of getting a good group of guys together, and I think this is just the start for all of us. We're really getting to the point now where we're starting to work together, we're starting to understand each other, and we're becoming that family that you really want."

Q: The rookies are part of this weekend's full-squad minicamp. How are you and the other veterans treating them?

A: "Well, you've got to shove them around just a little bit, you know. But they're part of the family, too, and you don't want to upset your little cousin, because one of these days he's going to grow up and get you. You're only as strong as your weakest link, so you've got to pull everybody along, no matter if they're a rookie, a vet ... anybody."