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Kelm Hopes He Can Pass Test as Rams’ Successor to Ekern

Times Staff Writer

Fritz Shurmur has collected so many notes on defense through the years he finally tossed them all in a binder and shipped them off to a publisher. Alas, another how-to book was born.

“We’ve taken a fairly simply game and totally screwed it up,” said Shurmur, author and defensive coordinator for the Rams.

It’s one of the reasons Shurmur mourned the retirement of linebacker Carl Ekern this spring. Imagine a math teacher losing his favorite student. As inside linebackers go, Ekern was a relative scarecrow, a milkman’s body in a football uniform. He lasted 13 seasons in the National Football League by understanding that the quickest way to a running back was first knowing where he was running.

Shurmur has coached better players than Ekern. Faster and stronger ones. But Ekern was Shurmur’s favorite by far. He played the game as Shurmur coached it from the sidelines. Ekern’s game was one of sorting, dissecting, reacting and tackling.

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Shurmur is convinced you need several types of defensive player to succeed--a delicate mixture of brain and brawn.

It was to his delight that Larry Kelm of Texas A&M; was available in the fourth round in the NFL draft of 1987. Most of the free world had never heard of Kelm, but Shurmur knew pretty quickly he’d found the next Carl Ekern.

For three years, he has groomed Kelm for the day Ekern would take his notes and retire. That day has come. To give you a clue about Kelm, he spent the off-season in Texas obtaining his degree in civil engineering.

That’s civil engineering as in three years of calculus and one year of something called differential equations.

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For reasons known only to him, Kelm has always loved math, which might give him a leg up in a Rams’ defense that gets more complicated by the minute.

Kelm doesn’t profess that his skills as a mathematician come in handy when Roger Craig is barreling through the line with knees flailing.

“It’s not like you can get out a protractor and say, ‘If I take this angle on a guy who runs the 40 in . . . ,”’ Kelm said.

But the discipline needed to learn calculus is the same discipline Kelm devotes to studying defenses. Now Kelm is by no means a wimp. He’s 6-foot-4 and 240 pounds and could rearrange a nose if the situation called for it. But you need more than muscle to run a defense. The game’s complexities demand it.

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Ekern, who learned those lessons from Jack (Hacksaw) Reynolds, now passes the torch to Kelm. Ekern has stayed on this season as a volunteer coach.

“In all honesty, I’ve always been pretty good at math,” Ekern said. “Now, if you want to equate that to something, you’d be grasping.”

But how far?

“It’s like studying in school,” Ekern explained about learning defense. “You can sit there with your book open for as long as you want. But if you’re not absorbing anything, it’s not doing you any good.”

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Kelm has the ability to sit and absorb. He has spent two years as an apprentice under Ekern, following the veteran through his rituals of film-watching and analysis.

“He applies himself,” Ekern said of Kelm. “He’s got a good grasp of it. I think he’ll be good at leading a defense.”

The Rams certainly hope so. Inside linebacker is one of the keys to success this season. Kelm and Fred Strickland have been asked to replace veterans Ekern and Jim Collins, and perhaps Mark Jerue, who’s rehabilitating from another knee surgery.

“Larry Kelm filling in for Carl Ekern is a big job,” Coach John Robinson said. “I think Kelm is one of the most underrated players on this team. But he has to do that job.”

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Kelm is eager to give it a shot, though no one has officially handed him the job.

“It’s exciting,” he said. “There’s a feeling of anxiety coming in. I’ve had plenty of time. There’s no excuses for me.”

Kelm can’t help but see a bit of Ekern in himself.

“I liked that he was consistent,” Kelm said. “I can relate that to me. I’m not the kind of guy with blazing speed. I’m not a real strong guy. But there was the way he studied film, and predicted plays. He was at the right place at the right time.”

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Kelm also is excited at the prospect of being teamed with Strickland, the second-year linebacker from Purdue who showed signs of greatness near the end of last season.

“It should be fun,” he said. “He’s an exciting kind of player. He has more ability than I do, I must say.”

Shurmur said there’s a necessity for both kinds of player on a team. He likens Kelm’s talents to an orchestra conductor.

“He may not play any instrument real well, but he sure can get them to play together,” Shurmur said. “He has a great ability to put a game together, to sort things out. And that’s the guy you want in that position.”

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Ram Notes

The Rams will travel to San Diego on July 30 for rookies-only scrimmage with the Chargers.. . . Coach John Robinson said the holdouts of first-round choices Bill Hawkins and Cleveland Gary won’t become a serious problem if the players are signed by the time the team returns from Tokyo in early August. . . . The Rams are moving training camp from Cal State Fullerton to UC Irvine next season because of upcoming construction on an athletic sports complex at the Titan campus.


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