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Rookies feel challenged, blessed by life in the NFL

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  • Rookies feel challenged, blessed by life in the NFL

    By Bill Coats
    Of the Post-Dispatch
    Saturday, Nov. 13 2004

    Rookie linebacker Brandon Chillar sometimes can't help himself. He looks around
    the Rams' locker room at stalls labeled "Faulk," "Bruce," "Holt," "Little" and
    "Pace," and just shakes his head.

    "This is what I've been praying for, this is what I've been working for, this
    is what I've wanted to do for so long," said Chillar, a fourth-round draft
    choice from UCLA. "It's what I asked for, and it's what I got. So, I'm blessed.
    I must be living right or something."

    Chillar is one of 12 first-year players who rise every day and report to Rams
    Park in Earth City. A year ago, they woke up on college campuses and headed for

    "This is a job; it's not just football," said cornerback Dwight Anderson, an
    undrafted rookie from the University of South Dakota. "You come in here at 6
    o'clock in the morning, and you come to work. It's just like your mom goes to
    work at 7 and comes home at 5. This is our job. ... But it's a fun job."

    Chillar said the commercial aspect of pro football came as a bit of jolt. "You
    start to learn how much of a business the NFL is," he said. "That's one thing
    that I didn't expect so much. Maybe that's just being a dumb rookie."

    But safety Jason Shivers said the NFL experience "is pretty much what I thought
    it would be. You have to get used to the stringent routine, because it's day in
    and day out. You have to really be focused 100 percent of the day. I think
    that's the biggest change" from college football.

    Shivers, a fifth-round pick from Arizona State, has yet to see game action,
    spending most of the season on the practice squad. "It's disappointing because
    I know that I'm better than that," he said. "But all I can do is just keep
    working and hopefully I'll get on the active (roster) and then I can get out
    there and do my thing."

    Others have been asked to contribute right away, despite their first-year
    status. Chillar has started four games; running back Steven Jackson, the team's
    first-round selection (No. 24 overall), is getting steady work spelling
    Marshall Faulk; and third-round pick Anthony Hargrove, an end from Georgia
    Tech, has been filling an increasing role on the defensive line rotation.

    "Things right now are going exceptionally for me, being able to compete on this
    level," said Jackson, an Oregon State product. "All the things I was going to
    deal with, Coach (Mike) Martz and his staff did a great job of exposing me to
    that early on. They kind of let me get my feet wet in the preseason and early
    in the regular season."

    Said Hargrove: "I'm getting more and more comfortable at both tackle and end,
    although some things are still a little confusing. (The NFL) is everything I
    thought it would be. The physical part of it, to me, isn't that big of a deal,
    like everyone says it is. But the speed of the game's different. Plus,
    everybody's professional and everybody's really good."

    Defensive tackle Brian Howard (undrafted, Idaho) has filled a reserve role, and
    center-guard Larry Turner (seventh round, Eastern Kentucky) has been busy on
    special teams. Tight end Erik Jensen (seventh round, Iowa) was placed on
    injured reserve after hurting a knee in a preseason game and undergoing

    Perhaps no rookie has been asked to do more, at least on the practice field,
    than quarterback Jeff Smoker, a sixth-round pick from Michigan State. Smoker
    holds a clipboard on Sundays as the Rams' third QB, but during the week, he
    emulates the opposing quarterback in scout team work.

    "I've never really been a backup before - high school, little league, college,
    even; I played all four years," Smoker said. "So running scout teams and kind
    of standing back and watching is definitely a new experience for me."

    Smoker said he has to be an actor of sorts as he tries to give the first-team
    defense a sense of what it will face on game day. The coaches "ask you to do
    specific things," Smoker said. "Like the week I was (Atlanta's) Michael Vick, I
    was out there running around ... got a little tired. But you try to give the
    defense the best look possible."

    In the meantime, Smoker also is striving to absorb Martz's intricate offense.
    "It's been steadily improving as the season's gone on," he said. "But as my
    grasp of the offense has been moving on, so does the offense as the season goes
    on. You have to add new plays each week and new little wrinkles, just to keep
    the defenses on their toes."

Related Topics


  • RamWraith
    Jackson puts emphasis on leading by example
    by RamWraith
    By Bill Coats
    Of the Post-Dispatch
    MACOMB, Ill. - After a week of resort-like weather, heat and humidity swooped down Tuesday on the football fields at Western Illinois University. Some players might have enjoyed a day off under the steamy conditions. But not Rams defensive end Tyoka Jackson, who was forced to the sideline with a banged-up left leg.

    "When I'm not practicing, there's extra work for my teammates, and I don't like to do that," Jackson said. "Football is a game of ongoing skill development, and every day that you miss a practice you're missing a day to get better, to get your skills developed more. And so I'm not happy about it."

    Jackson, 32, is one of the team's five full-time captains for the second year in succession, and he takes those duties seriously.

    "I always respected all the captains I've ever been around, from high school through college and in the NFL," he said. "Now that it's been bestowed on me, I take it personal. It's a great honor."

    Among his responsibilities, Jackson said, is to demonstrate a high level of dedication.

    "All leaders who are worth anything are leaders by example, and you can't lead by example when you're watching everyone else work," he said. "There are going to be nicks and scrapes; I'm just thankful it's not a big-time, serious injury."

    Coach Mike Martz said Jackson is "what we'd like everybody to use as a role model in that respect, in terms of competing, being a pro, a team player, all those things."

    Jackson provides relief for starter Leonard Little on the left side and often moves inside on third-down situations. Jackson played in all 16 regular-season games last year, with four starts. He totaled 45 tackles, with 5 1/2 sacks. Both were career highs for Jackson, who is starting his 10th season in the NFL.

    Jackson, a Penn State product who was not drafted in 1994 but was signed by Miami, has played with the Rams for three seasons. He said his time in the league has flown by.

    "In a lot of ways I still feel like I'm the same guy who was fighting for my life coming in as an undrafted free agent," he said. "I feel that was the biggest injustice of my career. That's never going to leave me.

    "I'm always going to be the guy in my heart who's fighting to get respect and fighting for a job every single year. That keeps me on edge, keeps me getting better."

    On Wednesday morning, Jackson was back on the practice field.

    A lot to learn

    Few NFL rookies face the kind of challenge that confronts quarterback Jeff Smoker, the Rams' sixth-round draft pick out of Michigan State. He is charged with mastering the bulging playbook that contains the details of Martz's intricate offense. ...
    -08-05-2004, 06:34 AM
  • RamWraith
    Smoker wants to compete for the No. 2 QB job
    by RamWraith
    By Jim Thomas
    Of the Post-Dispatch

    After a season spent watching and learning, Jeff Smoker wants to compete for the Rams' No. 2 quarterback job in 2005.

    "I'm going to give it a shot," Smoker said. "I feel like I learned a lot this year. I'm going to keep trying to improve my skills in the offseason. I'm going to work hard at it, because I don't really like to sit on the bench. This is the first time I had to do it, and I don't really enjoy it. So I'm going to work hard at getting that No. 2 spot if I can."

    Of course, being the top backup guarantees nothing in terms of playing time. Then again, the Rams had to do without starter Marc Bulger for 2 3/4 games in December after he suffered a bruised throwing shoulder.

    Smoker threw 42 passes in preseason play, or six more than Bulger. But once the regular season started, Smoker was relegated to No. 3 status and never appeared in a game.

    Now that his rookie season's over, Smoker plans to take a couple of weeks off, and then return to St. Louis to work out, study the playbook and begin preparing for next season.

    At the moment, the No. 2 job appears up for grabs. Chris Chandler isn't expected back, and Jamie Martin's contract is up.

    Torry's take

    Wide receiver Torry Holt believes most of the pieces are in place for the Rams' offense to regain its place among the league's elite in 2005.

    "If we continue to patch up our O-line - getting guys healthy is the main thing up front," Holt said. "With the receivers we've got coming back and with Steven (Jackson). ... I think we have an offense that can put up some good numbers, can be effective, and can help this ballclub win games."

    As for any concerns about defense and special teams, Holt said, "I'm going to let the people upstairs handle that. I'm going to let the coaches handle that. It's obvious that we have to improve in those areas."

    Anderson's year

    Dwight Anderson displayed speed, athletic ability and enthusiasm, but he also made a lot of mistakes in his rookie season. Which explains why he was a pregame inactive for four of the Rams' final seven regular-season games, as well as both postseason contests.

    "It was disappointing, but it's a learning curve, too," Anderson said. "I got a chance to really be out there and really see it. Now I kind of understand what (the NFL) is like."

    Anderson, a native of Jamaica, made the Rams roster as an undrafted cornerback from South Dakota. Even with that missed time in the regular season, Anderson finished tied for fifth in special teams tackles with 10.

    He saw spot duty on defense in a few early-season games, and returned kickoffs against Miami on Oct. 24. Rams coaches see promise in Anderson,...
    -01-19-2005, 06:13 AM
  • RamWraith
    Long shots hope to defy the odds, stick with Rams
    by RamWraith
    By Jim Thomas
    Of the Post-Dispatch
    Tuesday, Aug. 23 2005

    The "Turk" isn't here yet, but he's on his way. By Aug. 30, NFL rosters must be
    trimmed to 65. By Sept. 4, each roster shrinks to the regular-season limit of

    So in less than two weeks, one out of every three players currently practicing
    with the Rams will be out of a job. For some, these next few days will be their
    last in professional football.

    Until then, there's always hope. Hope that they can survive the roster
    cutdowns, and maybe - just maybe - become the next London Fletcher or Kurt
    Warner. Here's our annual look at some Rams roster long shots hoping to beat
    the odds:

    Jeremy Calahan: The next Zgonina?

    He has a stocky frame, thick calves, and wears jersey No. 90. If only Calahan
    were crabby on a regular basis, he'd be a dead ringer for Jeff Zgonina. The
    Rams thought so, too.

    "They took a picture of me and sent it to Zgonina as kind of a joke," Calahan

    The picture, taken in the Rams' indoor practice facility, shows defensive line
    coach Bill Kollar with his arm around Calahan. Zgonina, now with Miami, wore
    jersey No. 90 in five seasons with the Rams.

    "I didn't know (about the similarities) until I'd seen him on film," Calahan
    said. "The guy's just massive. He's huge. And he's a great player. I hope one
    day I can be at his level."

    At Rice, Calahan started three games as a true freshman, and was a full-time
    starter his final three college seasons. He's a hustle player who has shown a
    good inside push at times on the practice field. For a while, it looked as
    though he might give Brian Howard a run for the fourth defensive tackle spot
    behind first-round draft picks Ryan Pickett, Jimmy Kennedy, and Damione Lewis.
    But the arrival of 13-year NFL veteran John Parrella may change the depth-chart

    Not that it seems to matter to Calahan.

    "I'm having the time of my life," he said recently. "I think I fit in well with
    Coach Kollar. He's an effort and hard-work guy. He got me in here. So I'm just
    loving it. Just living a dream."

    If it doesn't work out, Calahan might start pursuing another dream - as the
    next super agent, or the next Jay Zygmunt. He already has his degree in
    economics, sports management and business management.

    Clifford Dukes: Spartan spirit

    Five years ago, Dukes and Rams quarterback Jeff Smoker entered Michigan State

    "I redshirted, so he left school a year before me," Dukes said. "We were
    actually suite-mates. Freshman...
    -08-24-2005, 05:51 AM
  • RamWraith
    Long shot Michna is making good impression
    by RamWraith
    By Jim Thomas
    Of the Post-Dispatch
    MACOMB, Ill. - Quarterback Russ Michna is right at home in Macomb. During his standout career at Western Illinois University, he spent two years living in the Thompson Hall dormitory.

    These days, Michna finds himself right back at Thompson, trying to make the Rams' roster as an undrafted rookie.

    "How weird is that?" Michna said. "It's even weird walking around seeing the same people in the dorms. Seeing the same security people. The same janitors.

    "The only thing that I can say is different is they've got a new dining hall. Otherwise, everything looks exactly the same as the first day I walked in there."

    No, Michna didn't ask for his old dorm room.

    "I wasn't getting greedy," he said. "Wherever they put me, I was happy."

    In college, Michna was a two-time offensive player of the year in the Gateway Conference. He threw for a school-record 3,160 yards last year for the Leathernecks, annually a Division I-AA football power.

    About 10 or 12 NFL teams talked to Michna up to and through the draft, but he didn't get selected despite his lofty numbers and Western's success

    "I didn't have my mind set on getting drafted," Michna said. "A lot of the things that I heard (from scouts) is that I was very raw. I hadn't been coached. But I just wanted the opportunity ... and to have that opportunity to learn. I've got that here."

    The Rams had talked to Michna not long after the draft.

    "They said, 'We're planning on bringing you in after June 1,'" Michna said. "But still, what does that mean?"

    In this case it meant: When we release Kurt Warner, we'll have a roster spot at quarterback.

    Michna was signed on June 2 - the same day Warner was released.

    Michna (pronounced MICK-nah) is a bright player. Not only does he have his undergraduate degree in finance - he already has is master's in business administration. He already has been able to grasp some of what the Rams' do on offense. In addition, the lefty has an accurate arm, decent arm strength, and very good mobility.

    "He's a good little player," coach Mike Martz said. "He's not a camp arm."

    For the record, Michna is 6-1, 224 pounds. His chances of making the 2004 Rams roster are slim. During the offseason, the Rams made a four-year, $19.1 million commitment to Marc Bulger as their starter. They also brought in veteran Chris Chandler as their backup, and drafted Michigan State's Jeff Smoker in the sixth round.

    With practice squads expanded to eight players this year, Michna's best chance of staying with the Rams in '04 would be on that developmental squad.

    Much to the delight of Leathernecks...
    -08-19-2004, 05:41 AM
  • RamWraith
    Smoker -- not Martin -- will back up Chandler
    by RamWraith
    By Bill Coats
    Of the Post-Dispatch
    Friday, Dec. 10 2004

    Jeff Smoker will be the Rams’ backup quarterback Sunday at Carolina. And that’s
    no joke.

    “Usually I’m on the sideline writing on the clipboard and maybe joking around
    here and there” during games, said Smoker, a rookie from Michigan State. “But I’
    ve got to stay into the game now and be prepared to go in at any time.”

    Smoker, a sixth-round draft choice, was the No. 3 quarterback for the team’s
    first 11 games. His role in practice was as the scout-team QB.

    But now, after the shoulder bruise that will keep starter Marc Bulger out for
    at least Sunday’s game and put 39-year-old Chris Chandler in the lineup, Smoker
    is a turned ankle away from seeing his first regular-season action in the NFL.

    “It’s one step closer,” Smoker said. “But hopefully nothing happens to Chris
    and all goes well and I don’t have to get in.”

    Should he get the call, though, Smoker said he believes that he’s ready. “Yeah,
    definitely. I’ve been learning little by little every week,” he said.
    “Obviously I don’t know everything, and I don’t know as much as Marc and
    probably Chris. But I know enough to get in there, be efficient and run the

    Coach Mike Martz wasn’t so sure of that earlier in the week, when he indicated
    that former Ram Jamie Martin -- signed on Monday -- would fill the No. 2 role.
    But Smoker earned the spot with his play in practice.

    “I stuck him in the blitz periods and . . . I was very pleased with how well he
    responded; he did a great job,” Martz said. “He’s been through everything in
    camp and he played for us in the preseason. I think at this point, that’s the
    way we would start and give Jamie some time to get his feet on the ground.”

    Hard-headed Hargrove:

    Unlike most teams, the Panthers don’t form a wedge on kickoff returns. No one
    is happier about that than Rams rookie Anthony Hargrove.

    Hargrove, a defensive end by trade, twice has suffered concussions this year on
    opening kickoffs while trying to bust wedges by hurtling his 6-foot-3,
    269-pound body into the fray. It happened in the season opener against Arizona
    and again last Sunday vs. San Francisco.

    “They tell you, ‘The closer you get, the faster you run,’” Hargrove said. “I
    just try to hit it and take out everybody on one shot.” Taking himself out,
    though, is not part of the plan.

    “When he goes down there and hits them, he’d probably be better leading with
    something other than the top of his head,” Martz said. “He’ll figure that out

    Perhaps sooner rather than later; the most recent concussion shook the ...
    -12-11-2004, 08:11 AM