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Facing Montana Ages Rookie Free Safety : Rams: Defensive back Terrell will get another shot at the 49ers Monday night.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Pat Terrell has already stared into the eyes of Joe Montana and guessed right, already played 13 games in a league not normally gentle to rookie safeties, and already lost more times in one year than he did in his final three seasons at Notre Dame combined.

Growing up? Terrell, the Rams’ rookie free safety, can tell you a little about it. Every game against Montana is counted in dog years by NFL safeties, who say if you don’t age seven times as fast, receivers will be flying by you like frightened cats up a tree.

Terrell will get his second chance to make his mark against Montana Monday night when the Rams play host to the San Francisco 49ers.

But for all that, Terrell says, nothing quite compares with the experience of having to try to cover a player appropriately known as “the Rocket” every day in practice. Which is what Terrell and the rest of Notre Dame’s secondary had to do as long as Raghib (Rocket) Ismail, this year’s Heisman Trophy runner-up, was around.

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And just how do you cover a rocket?

“Just before the snap, you turn around and start running before they hike the ball,” Terrell said. “Everyone is pretty fast in this league. I don’t think there’s such a thing as a slow receiver. But I really haven’t seen guys who can run like Rocket Ismail.

“I’ll tell you, he helped us out a lot in college. We never saw any speed like his. Everything else was kind of a little slower paced.”

So in comes Terrell, drafted by the Rams in the second round this year, with a national title under his belt and several Rocket-enhanced seasons to use as a handy reference.

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He thought he could come right in and contribute immediately, perhaps even plugging some defensive holes as the Rams drove to the Super Bowl. He was a talented young safety from Notre Dame, and the Rams were a team that had fallen only one victory short of the Super Bowl the season before.

But there was some growing up to do--for everybody. Terrell has been gradually worked into the defense as the Rams’ free safety in nickel situations.

“It’s definitely been a tough year,” Terrell said of the Rams’ 5-8 record. “You know, you get drafted by the Rams, you smile because you know they’re a playoff team.

“But you come in and you have a rough early season and things just didn’t go as planned or expected. But I think it makes all the character of the players really shine, to find out what we’re all really made of. We’re all in the same ship, and we’ve all got to get it headed in the right direction.

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“So I think it brings the team a little closer together when something like this happens. I think one thing I’ve learned as a rookie is that the margin between winning and losing in the NFL is probably two or three plays. That’s it.”

One thing the season-long struggle has done is enabled the Rams to be a little more free with playing their promising younger players, and Terrell is a significant part of that. At times, he has replaced starter Vince Newsome. At other times, the Rams have played the nickel scheme most of the game--as they did in their upset victory over the 49ers last month.

Clearly, the Rams, who aren’t unhappy with Newsome, want to see what Terrell can do.

“You hate to get thrown into a situation just because things are going bad,” Terrell said. “We just had different things planned and things didn’t quite work out. Being in the lineup more is definitely nice, but I’m just here to do what Coach (John) Robinson needs me to do.”

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Against the 49ers and Montana Monday night, Terrell will be asked to do exactly what he did last time--try to anticipate the actions of Joe Montana.

Terrell had one of the Rams’ three interceptions in that first game, the 49ers’ only loss this season, and the Rams’ surprise four-safety, “Big Nickel” scheme threw Montana and the rest of the 49er offense out of whack.

“In that position as the free safety, he needs to go where we need the help most, based on where it looks Joe’s going with the deep ball,” said Fritz Shurmur, Ram defensive coordinator. “And he was in the right spots.”

Pretty good for a rookie?

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“Excellent,” Shurmur said. “And he made a heck of an interception, one of the great athletic plays of the year. Probably the best athletic play of the year was the interception he made on a deflected ball over the middle.”

Terrell has that one interception, one fumble recovery, and a total of seven tackles this season. Not impressive statistics, but the Rams believe he is the kind of ball-hawking athlete who belongs in their secondary.

Shurmur emphasizes that he thinks Newsome is having one of the most consistent seasons among Ram defenders, and that he can’t move him out simply to find a spot for Terrell. So, for now, Terrell plays only when the Rams’ nickel defense is in--which sometimes can be more than 50% of the time.

Remember, Shurmur says, Terrell was a little late signing, so he missed some of training camp, then learned the Rams’ new defensive scheme, then was totally sidetracked when the Rams’ ditched that system to go back to their 1989 system.

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“We went to a scheme after a while, three weeks into the season, that everybody else was comfortable with and he knew nothing about,” Shurmur said. “So he had to kind of start all over. So he got behind in that regard.”

Said Terrell: “Looking way back, I came a little late and the train was already moving full speed, and to jump on the train when you’re starting from standstill position, it was tough. But I think I’ve caught on and feel comfortable out there. I wouldn’t be out there if I didn’t know what I was doing.”

Early in the season, Robinson joked that Terrell was doing a good job of running, but sometimes would run in the wrong direction. Terrell says he’s come a long way since.

“When you first get in, you want to try to show people that you’re aggressive and you want to get into the mix of things,” Terrell said. “But I think that was way back in preseason. I think I’ve come a long way. I definitely have a long way to go, but I definitely have come a long way.”

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