Newsome Wonders What It'll Take to Become Rams' Secondary Starter

Times Staff Writer

Safety Vince Newsome led the Rams in tackles last Sunday and earned public praise from his head coach, so naturally he was demoted to reserve status for tonight's game with the Raiders and left wondering once more what it takes to get a starting position.

What happens next time, say, Newsome intercepts a few passes or returns a fumble for a touchdown? "All right, mister, enough is enough? You're out of here?"

It seems no matter what he does-and, according to Ram coaches, it all has been exemplary stuff-Newsome can't sneak himself into the secondary on a permanent basis. What's a guy have to do?

In a recent game against the San Francisco 49ers, Newsome, who was substituting for injured strong safety Nolan Cromwell, ended one fourth-period drive by intercepting a Joe Montana pass in the end zone. The 49ers led, 13-10 at the time. Earlier, on a 49er run attempt, Newsome sent Randy Cross earthward. Cross, a guard, is 6-foot-3, 265 pounds. Newsome is 179 pounds packaged into a 6-1 body. The play allowed Ram tacklers to converge easily on running back Roger Craig.

The Rams eventually defeated the 49ers, 27-20.

The following week, against the Cardinals, Newsome accounted for nine tackles as free safety Johnnie Johnson nursed a hamstring injury. As usual, Newsome appeared on every Ram special team. He is one of a handful of players who is included on each punt, kickoff, extra point and field goal situation. Not only does he appear, he excels.

If special teams Coach Gil Haskell had his way, Newsome would be playing in the Pro Bowl next month. Instead, Minnesota Vikings Joey Browner was selected as the NFC's special teams performer.

"Joey Browner, now he's an outstanding guy like Vince," said Haskell. "And (Tim) Tyrrell from Atlanta, well, we like him very much, too. But I wouldn't trade one of those guys for Vince."

Newsome also has developed a growing reputation as a fierce tackler, a trait he nurtured in high school and perfected at the University of Washington, where he often watched Seattle Seahawk All-Pro safety Kenny Easley perform forearm-to-chest surgery on runners. But Newsome's favorite defensive players were former Raiders Jack Tatum and George Atkinson. "Regardless of what anybody ever said about (Tatum), I just liked his style," Newsome said.

According to his own rankings, Newsome said he considers linebacker Jim Collins as the Rams' hardest tackler, but also submits his name for consideration.

"I like to hit," Newsome said. "As a matter of fact, it's taken me almost three years to stop going for the man and start going for the ball. Like I say, you get recognition as a hitter, but you don't get any selections or consideration for any honors without interceptions."

On occasion, Newsome would do better to blend into the backround. As a safety, he finds a tight end or wide receiver chasing after him for a block. Once, against the Washington Redskins, fullback John Riggins found Newsome unattended. "I was out the rest of the game," Newsome said.

Still, Newsome continues to do well at what the Ram defensive secondary calls 'pulling the trigger.'

"It's like, you can get there against someone who is bigger than you, but if you don't pull your trigger before they pull theirs, you're going to get wiped out. It's like an explosion, like a gun."

The Ram coaching staff has noticed Newsome ever since they selected him in the fourth round of the 1983 draft. They're just not sure what to do with him.

"He's really good," Haskell said. "When he blocks a guy, he's blocked. It's like the guy is shot. Boom! Down he goes. And it isn't just once every three games. He'll do it two, three times a game."

"A high-velocity hitter," said Fritz Shurmur, the Rams' defensive coordinator. "He's been about as big of a factor in the success of our defense as anybody."

And this from Coach John Robinson: "Vince is kind of dangerous in the middle. He's not the kind of guy you'd like to run an in-pattern on. When he becomes a starter, he's going to have a reputation of, 'Oooh, not me running that in,' because he can hit you and he kind of likes it."

But there's the rub. When a starter? Sure, it's nice to earn compliments for your punt coverage, but Newsome would prefer something more substantial. "Special teams, well, that's a stepping stone to what I really want," Newsome said. "It's helping us win and that's fine. But I don't want to be in my seventh year and say, 'Hey, I'm the greatest special teams player in the world.' That's not why I came to the NFL."

Newsome came to start, but there's this little problem of incumbency hindering his advancement. Cromwell and Johnson are former All-Pros and show few signs of wanting to relinquish their positions. Newsome said he understands the situation, acknowledges and respects their experience and copes as best he can. That, of course, doesn't make the dilemma any easier.

"It's really difficult to start and then go back to the bench," he said. "Those guys are good, but I feel I'm just as good and I can play just as well as they can play. But you need a time and you need to get in there. In the back of my mind I know I can start. I think I could start almost anywhere in the league. But I'm on a winning team and we have real good concept in the secondary and everybody helps everybody. I can't argue with that."

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