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    Rams’ defense finding new energy, leaders from youth movement
    • July 30, 2023

    IRVINE — It started first as a trickle, with linebacker and captain Bobby Wagner agreeing with the Rams to part ways. It picked up steam when the Rams began taking phone calls on cornerback Jalen Ramsey. Then it turned to a flood as Leonard Floyd, Troy Hill, Nick Scott, Taylor Rapp and A’Shawn Robinson departed Los Angeles.

    By the time it was done, the veteran Rams defense was all but gone, taking with them 49 years of NFL experience. In their place, as the Rams began training camp this week, were 19 rookies and four second-year players competing for playing time and roster spots.

    “It’s different, man. I ain’t gonna lie, it’s really different,” three-time defensive player of the year Aaron Donald said. “You miss them guys definitely when you had so much success with them and you been working with them so long. But now obviously is a new chapter.”

    This new chapter has had a certain youthful exuberance to it through the first four days of camp.

    Any pass break up of a pass intended for star receiver Cooper Kupp leads to the defense pouring off the sidelines onto the field in celebration. An interception by rookie safety Rashad Torrence led to his unit following him down the field into the opposite end zone. The defense fell to its knees after corner Timarcus Davis dropped an interception.

    “We’re just a young energetic group, man,” linebacker Ernest Jones said. “We all care about each other and we’re excited to prove a lot of people wrong and go out there and be dominant like we know we can be.”

    “These young guys bring a lot of juice,” Kupp added. “I don’t know a bunch of their references, but they bring some juice.”

    If energy is not an issue, then the question becomes, what happens to this defense when it encounters its first level of adversity?

    Whether that be in the form of a preseason or regular season game or an injury to an expected contributor, how do these young Rams weather the storm? Who steps up to provide some level of comfort when eyes go wide or coverages get broken?

    That will be one the challenges the Rams face this year, finding leaders in a group that is largely trying to find its way in the league. Players in their fourth seasons, like safety Jordan Fuller and outside linebacker Michael Hoecht, or their third, like linebacker Ernest Jones, will have to fill roles vacated by the likes of Wagner and Ramsey.

    “I think a lot of those guys do have natural leadership traits and characteristics,” head coach Sean McVay said. “You’re not going to replace a Jalen Ramsey and what a special player that he was for us. Nobody’s going to be Bobby Wagner. But I want them to be the best versions of themself, and if they do that, I am confident that good things can happen.”

    Jones has the most responsibility fall onto shoulders just by the nature of his position. As middle linebacker, he receives play calls from defensive coordinator Raheem Morris and relays them to his teammates.

    He’s also the only one of the Rams’ seven leading tacklers from a year ago still with the team.

    Jones has lofty ambitions for this season, stating that he wants to make himself into “a household name”. But he’s also staying active during his rest periods at practice, calling out encouragement and dapping teammates up during specials team drills.

    He says he took aspects of former teammates’ leadership, but is trying not to stray too far away from his own methods.

    “These are my brothers, once you’re on this team, I love you and I care about you like I care about myself and always get the job done. That attracts people, I’ve always kind of had that trait or whatnot,” Jones said. “So just having fun around the guys, having fun with them, making sure they’re never too down on themselves.”

    “Ernest is a real leader,” Cobie Durant said. “He sets the tone.”

    Durant will have a lot thrust on him during his third season. With the departure of Ramsey, the cornerback is moving inside to the star cornerback role.

    The position requires that he move around to either side of the field, and he will try to take what Ramsey taught him about communicating to help his teammates settle in prior to the snap.

    “When I’m communicating in the change of the strength, star right, star left, go ahead and saying that early on and letting everybody else know where I’m lining up at because it kind of runs through me,” Durant said. “I don’t think it’s no pressure. Football is football at the end of the day. I learned a lot from him, I learned a lot from Troy. Attacking it every day.”

    Some position groups find themselves without a player on their second NFL contract. The outside linebackers room has a total of eight years of pro experience across seven players.

    But Hoecht, the old man of that unit entering his fourth year, says the group has seen that as an opportunity.

    “We all have a lot of ownership over it,” Hoecht said. “We’re all really young, this is [OLBs coach Joe Coniglio’s] first year. There’s not a ton of experience there so we get to make the room exactly how we want it, we get to set the culture, do the things we want to do.”

    The lack of experience has led to some dour media projections about the Rams’ defense, ones that Ramsey is sure to send teasing texts to Morris about.

    But Morris tries to keep his unit insulated from such press, and he is trying to simplify the verbiage of his defense to allow younger players to thrive. But as a challenge, it’s one that Morris is embracing.

    “It’s so funny that I’m becoming this old coach that’s got to be this nice soul in the classroom when I’m talking to them that it’s a formidable way to go about your day. I really enjoy those moments,” Morris, 46, said. “But that energy is what you really love. I enjoy it just so much because I get a chance to watch the guys go out there and have fun.”

    Michel to retire

    Running back Sony Michel met with McVay on Saturday to inform him of his decision to retire following a five-year career.

    Michel, 28, was a member of the Rams’ 2021 Super Bowl team and rejoined the team this training camp after spending 2022 with the Chargers.

    “I thought he was a hugely instrumental piece for our Super Bowl team a couple years ago. The epitome of a pro and a great competitor,” McVay said. “His body’s feeling like it’s talking to him and I have nothing but respect and appreciation for the competitor that he is.”

    McVay said the Rams will look to add one or two players to the running back room, currently headlined by fourth-year back Cam Akers and complemented by Kyren Williams and Zach Evans. The coach said he wasn’t sure if the Rams would opt for a veteran complement for the group.


    Cornerback Akhello Witherspoon will be limited moving forward in camp as he adjusts to a cast after having surgery to insert two pins into an injured thumb. Tight end Davis Allen injured his hamstring and McVay said the team will be cautious about returning the rookie to practice.

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