Rubley's a Project, but His Heart, Head Are in the Right Place : Rams: His progress and performance in training camp and the preseason will determine if ninth-round pick makes the team.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ted Tollner, quarterback guru, had received his mission: Come down from the mountaintop and search the land for a good young arm.

This was not, however, a quest for the best. Considering what the Rams have--Jim Everett--and what they didn't have--a defense--Coach Chuck Knox wasn't about to use a high draft choice on a quarterback. So Tollner set out to find "somebody we thought had a future that we could get on the second day (of the draft)."

After all, Washington's Mark Rypien went in the sixth round in 1986. So, you never know. . . .

Tollner, who tutored Jim McMahon and Steve Young at Brigham Young and sent three quarterbacks--Jesse Freitas, Craig Penrose and Matt Kofler--to the pros while an offensive assistant at San Diego State, went to the combines, visited college campuses and then let his instincts take over.

As a result, the Rams chose Tulsa's T.J. Rubley in the ninth round. Rubley set school records for career pass attempts (1,336), completions (682), yards (9,324) and touchdowns (73), and led Tulsa to a 28-17 victory over San Diego State in the 1991 Freedom Bowl.

He's a drop-back passer with a big league arm, but he won over Tollner as much with his heart and head as with his arm.

"We went to the campus and worked him out, and had a chance to get him on the (chalk) board and have him tell us about what they're doing offensively," Tollner said. "That's when you get a feel for how much a kid understands the game and how he can communicate it to others.

"You also get an idea if he enjoys the theory of the game, if he enjoys the time in the film room and the classroom. It was just one day, but I got the right gut feeling."

Rubley, who admits he's disappointed he didn't go a little higher in the draft, is nonetheless excited about the chance to work with Tollner. And it only takes a minute of conversation with Rubley to understand why the feeling is mutual.

"First, I want to learn the offense so well that I'm totally at peace with it," Rubley said. "Then I can go out and have fun playing football. If I'm not having fun, I'm not as effective, or as sound mentally, or as organized, or as precise. I'll reach that comfort zone and then I'll be able to manipulate the pressures and turn everything to my favor.

"That's why the first thing I asked when I came to Rams Park was, 'Where are the film room keys?' That's what I do because I love the game. I don't play for a lot of external reasons, I play for myself, because I love it.

"That's why when I'm not perfect, I get upset. It's awfully hard to let go. Sometimes I flick myself on the ears that way, but I can live with that, as opposed to being lazy or nonchalant. That's the way it is when football is truly in your heart."

It's also in his genes.

At Davenport West High School in Iowa, Theron Joseph Rubley, the youngest of seven sons, was the fourth in a line of Rubley brothers who quarterbacked the team for 15 years in an 18-year span.

"Our family pretty much had a lock on the quarterback spot," Rubley said, smiling. "It was a pressure you just assumed. My two older brothers had won state titles, so it was expected that my next oldest brother and I were supposed to, too.

"Unfortunately, we didn't."

Rubley held up his end of the deal though, throwing for 4,009 yards and 38 touchdowns in three seasons for Davenport West.

There was more satisfaction to be found at Tulsa, where his 12 touchdown passes in his freshman year were the most by a Golden Hurricane quarterback since Coach Dave Rader threw for 14 touchdowns 11 seasons earlier.

As a sophomore, Rubley passed for 2,497 yards and 17 touchdowns. In his junior year, he increased the touchdown total to 22 and led Tulsa to the Independence Bowl, its bowl appearance in 13 years.

A knee injury early in the 1990 season sidelined him all year, but he got another chance at a senior year in 1991 and he made the most of it, completing 57% of his passes for 2,054 yards and 18 touchdowns, and finishing the season with the Freedom Bowl victory at Anaheim Stadium.

"From a starting freshman to a starting redshirt senior, he saw that program develop into a winner and he was at the offensive helm through the whole development," Tollner said. "Those are some very positive things.

"Also, the more you play, the better off you are. That's a plus. The more exposure you have, the more experience you can draw on."

Rubley is convinced the 49 games he played in college can only help ease his transition into the NFL.

"That's something you can't discount," he said. "There's no substitute for game experience. And I was able to throw the ball a lot, so I saw a lot of situations, a lot of different coverages."

Dropping back in the pocket, scanning the opposition and making a split-second decision that could decide the fate of his entire team is a way of life for Rubley. So no one is expecting him to wilt under the pressure of proving himself to the Rams.

"Because of my brothers, I really don't know what living without pressure is like," he said. "In fact, now I can relieve a little bit of pressure because none of them ever got this far.

"Now, when they give me advice, I don't have to pay attention."

Barring injury, T.J. Rubley will live a dream this summer when he throws his first pass while wearing a Ram uniform with No. 12 on the back--the same uniform and number once worn by Joe Namath.

"I slept under his poster every night as a kid," Rubley said. "He was my childhood idol. I remember the big deal when the Jets traded him to the Rams. And I vividly remember when he ran for a first down with the Rams and everyone couldn't believe it. They said it was the first time in 12 years or something.

"You know, there aren't many people who are fortunate enough to grow up and wear the same uniform and same number as their idol."

But will the dream end on an exhibition field? Will Knox keep three quarterbacks as he has in the past?

Rubley's progress and performance in training camp and the exhibition season will weigh heavily in that decision.

"He's got a strong arm, a plenty strong arm," Tollner said. "He's got the aptitude and he'll get the mental part rapidly, but what he needs more than anything, as is the case with all rookies, is the work on the field. The real growth has to take place on the field."

It's an age-old trap. A rookie needs repetitions to improve, but practice time is precious and a team wins or loses on the preparedness of its starters.

"There's no question that it's hard for a quarterback to get the experience on this level," Tollner said. "We want to develop him as fast we can, but it's a second priority.

"And yet his progress will determine his fate.

"We haven't gotten to the point of deciding (whether to keep three quarterbacks), but there's a strong possibility if the situation warrants it. A lot will come down to just how much he's capable of doing at the time we have to make that decision."

One thing is certain, Rubley will make the most of every second from the day training camp opens for rookies July 6 until the minute the Ram brain trust makes a decision about his future.

There may be no substitute for taking snaps, but Rubley the sponge will be absorbing something all the time.

"Just watching Jim (Everett) is like watching a training film," Rubley said. "That's why at mini-camp I tried to get around him and listen to every little comment, to try and see everything he sees.

"I get to work with Coach Tollner and Jim and Mike Pagel. There's just such a wealth of information and experience. You just keep your mouth shut and listen and maybe ask a question now and then. There's a lot to learn and unless you're sound between the ears, you won't be sound from the shoulders on down."

Now, if he can only deliver a pass with the same ease as a soliloquy.

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