Rams linebacker from Nigeria is latest rookie stepping up to become starter

As pep talks go, this one was short and to the point.

Wade Phillips, the Rams’ veteran defensive coordinator, wanted to gauge linebacker Samson Ebukam’s frame of mind this week as the rookie prepared for his first NFL start on Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals.

“Are you nervous?” Phillips asked.

“Heck yeah,” Ebukam responded.

“Well,” Phillips said, “you better be.”

Ebukam chuckled recalling the exchange.

“Of course I’m nervous,” said Ebukam, who will start in place of injured Connor Barwin. “It’s my first career start. I didn’t think that was going to happen so soon, but I’m excited. I need to show some of my skills.”

The Rams, under first-year coach Sean McVay, have an 8-3 record and an opportunity to sweep the Cardinals, after shutting them out 33-0 in London in Week 7. Arizona quarterback Carson Palmer suffered a season-ending broken arm in that game, but the 5-6 Cardinals still have receiver Larry Fitzgerald and running back Adrian Peterson, both future hall of famers.

That will pose a challenge for the 6-foot-3, 240-pound Ebukam, the latest member of the 2017 draft class to start or play a significant role for the Rams.

Rookie receiver Cooper Kupp is second on the team with 46 receptions for 597 yards. Tight end Gerald Everett has started two games and has 10 catches, and Josh Reynolds started for the first time last week and caught his first touchdown pass.

Safety John Johnson has been a starter since Week 5 and is fifth in tackles, and defensive lineman Tanzel Smart has started four games.

McVay described the rookie class as a “pleasant surprise” for a Rams team that is leading the NFC West.

“What we looked for, really in all these guys, are mature players that understand the game and then go about it the right way,” McVay said. “And that’s both a credit to [them and] some of the veterans we have as well.”

For rookies, it’s been nonstop football since the spring of 2016.

They went through spring practice and training camp before their final college seasons, played 12 to 13 games, and then jumped immediately into preparation for the NFL scouting combine and the draft. They attended rookie camp with the Rams, went through off season workouts and minicamps and then training camp before participating in preseason games.

Now they are going into their 12th regular season game — with four more to play and the possibility of playoffs.

None of the first-year players said they have hit the so-called “rookie wall,” when mental and physical fatigue set in.

“I don’t want to jinx myself,” Kupp said, “but I don’t think I’ve hit it. Taking care of your body and having a love for the game helps too.”

Veterans said the rookie wall was a real thing.

“I still experience it now,” fourth-year safety Lamarcus Joyner said. “I still have to talk myself through it because you just have to find a way to keep grinding and persevering.”

The rookie class showed its capability the first time it met after the draft, Johnson said.

“Once I got around the guys, I knew we were all hard-working,” he said. “I knew we’re all low-maintenance and get-in-the-work type of guys. So it feels good to me to see us actually out there helping the team.”

Ebukam, born in Nigeria and a fourth-round pick from Eastern Washington, did not participate in offseason workouts because of an NFL rule that forbids rookies from fully participating until the school’s spring term is complete. Ebukam then suffered a hamstring injury early in training camp, setting him back.

“When he came into camp, he worked real hard,” Phillips said. “We noticed that real quick. He had a good work ethic, so that helped him fit in real well.”

Ebukam has played on special teams in every game, but he first made his mark with a sack against the Houston Texans that forced a fumble. Last week he sacked Saints quarterback Drew Brees for an 11-yard loss.

“He’s played well, rookie-wise, for the time he’s been in there,” Phillips said, adding, “He’s got a lot of energy and I like that.”

Ebukam described the starting opportunity as a “dream come true.”

Once he gets through the first play against the Cardinals, he said, the nervousness will end.

“It’s the fight or flight scenario,” he said. “Every play I’m going to fight. That’s all I know.”

gary.klein@latimes.com

Follow Gary Klein on Twitter @latimesklein

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