They Sing His Praises but Don't Praise His Singing : Rams: Rookie Gilbert elicits rave reviews for on-field performance in mini-camp. But his lunch-time serenade is panned.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Further proving that even millionaire, 315-pound rookies are best seen and not heard reaching for high octaves, Sean Gilbert arrived at Rams Park Friday to decidedly mixed reviews.

On the field in his first appearance as a Ram, Gilbert was a smash, showing exactly the kind of fast feet and brute strength that recently made him a rich man. The Rams drafted him as the No. 3 overall selection in the draft and immediately signed him to a five-year contract because he was large and because he could run.

Gilbert simply looked bigger and faster than anyone on the field for Friday's two workouts, even if he says he is going slowly in his first days as a pro.

"Just taking it one step at a time," Gilbert said Friday, "not trying to get a cape and fly over the field. Nothing like that."

But in the cafeteria, at lunch, singing "The Star-Spangled Banner" for the assembled veteran players, the critics were less kind, and suggested that it will be some time before this Ram is called on to sing for a crowd again.

"He should use that $3 million he got for singing lessons," said Alvin Wright, with pained expression.

"That was just terrible," said another veteran, walking away quickly from the scene.

Of course, since Pavarotti has not yet proved his ability to rush the passer, it can be assumed Gilbert's job as the Rams' starting defensive right tackle is not yet in jeopardy.

The teasing about his newly mammoth checking account and strange vocal stylings were things that come with the big-bucks territory, Gilbert said with a shrug Friday, the first day rookies participated in the Rams' weeklong mini-camp.

"I just got done singing in there," Gilbert said. "They told me I needed to work on that."

Did he agree?

"Aww, it was horrible, I know it was."

During his meeting with the media Friday, Gilbert had to pause and smile as linebackers coach Dick Selcer strolled by loudly singing "We're in the Money" to himself and anybody else who happened to be near.

Gilbert's football performance was just as loud and clear.

Gilbert and the rest of the team will work out twice today then get in a final quick practice Sunday morning before breaking camp until training camp begins in July.

During the two light-contact workouts Friday, Gilbert, often matched against veteran guard Tom Newberry, played well enough to please the Ram coaches, who have designed their entire defense with him distinctly in mind as the catalyst.

"He certainly was impressive, the size, the way he can run and everything," Coach Chuck Knox said Friday. "And he seemed to pick up the defenses that we have in, pick them up very quickly.

"(Without pads on) the only thing you can see is the athletic ability, you can see his reactions, the quickness, his ability to run.

"He seemed like he's in pretty good shape. He ran those (end-of-practice sprints), and he chased on every play we ran out there."

Last year's No. 1 pick, cornerback Todd Lyght, said any top choice has to expect to get more than his share of attention and that he thinks Gilbert is somebody who can handle it.

"I think he's going to be a great addition to our team, looks like a great football player," Lyght said. "I can't wait to see him in pads.

"I'm just sure he's trying to blend in as much as possible, try not to stand out any more than the next guy."

That is, if anybody making $1.5 million a season can avoid standing out.

As a 22-year-old rookie who played only 17 college games and already makes more than any other defensive player on the team, Gilbert says he knows there will be plenty of attention directed toward him with every move he makes.

"Well, first player taken (by the team), you have to know there's a lot of eyes on you," Gilbert said. "But you can only do so much.

"Any time you start something over, you get butterflies. But I was kind of more anxious to get out there and get into the groove of it."

Rookies are only allowed to practice with the team for one weekend, then must return to home or their campus until June 1, when they can return for individual workouts and studying. Gilbert said he expects to be back at Rams Park in June.

The huge bonus with Gilbert, Knox pointed out, is that he already has signed and the Rams know he will be at training camp on the first day, ready to rumble. When Knox drafted Cortez Kennedy for the Seattle Seahawks two years ago, that impact defensive tackle missed all of training camp due to a contract holdout and watched his first season wash away.

Last year, Lyght also missed most of training camp, and suffered injury problems through the season.

"It's a really good thing that the Rams signed him early, then he can get in and help," Lyght said. "They don't have to worry about him coming in, learning late and not really making a contribution until the late part of the season."

Did Lyght wish he had been signed earlier in his rookie season?

"You've got to look at it both ways," Lyght said. "I didn't have to go through training camp, know what I mean?

"But they wanted to get him in, because I figure he's a big guy, and if he wasn't at training camp then he'd be home somewhere gaining weight."

Ram Notes

Running back Marcus Dupree arrived at mini-camp Friday after missing the first four days. He is unsigned and had a sore right hamstring. Dupree ran some drills in the morning practice, but after his leg tightened up, he was held out of the afternoon workout.

With third-round pick Marc Boutte looming as a potential starter at left defensive tackle next to Gilbert, Knox Friday said he had no qualms about starting two rookies on the defensive line. "We will start our best football players, period," Knox said, pointing out that he has started two or three rookies on defensive squads that have been successful in the past. "Just depends on how good they are."

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