One-hundred seventy players were chosen before Darryl Ashmore’s name was uttered during this spring’s NFL draft--170 players with fine college pedigrees or blazing speed or behemoth proportions. Or, like Sean Gilbert, a healthy and wealthy blend of them all.
The 172nd pick in the draft was Ashmore, who at best has only loose bits and pieces of what the NFL wants in its athletes.
So as Gilbert, the team’s No. 1 pick, surged Thursday morning into his first Ram training camp practice with a $3.2-million bonus in pocket and the eyes of everyone on his 310-pound frame, Ashmore emerged as Gilbert’s reverse image.
Gilbert plays defense. Ashmore is a converted defensive lineman who is getting a shot to make the Rams as a backup offensive tackle.
Gilbert is a can’t-miss star from the tradition-rich, talent-laden University of Pittsburgh, where he left school a year early to get a head start in the NFL. Ashmore is a long-range project from endowment-rich, victory-poor Northwestern, where he spent five years enduring those 51-10 Ohio State blowouts.
Gilbert was the third pick overall. Ashmore was the Rams’ seventh-round pick.
Gilbert is almost 6 feet 5, has stunningly fast feet and a body like a tree trunk. Ashmore is almost 6-7, has huge, perhaps not so stunningly fast feet, a reconstructed knee, and a body more chiseled than chunky.
Gilbert is the kind of player coaches just wind up, drop into the middle of a defense, and expect mayhem. Ashmore is the kind of player that coaches coach every day, for years, hoping for down-the-road success.
But Ashmore might not have to look that far down the road.
“We’re just going to hope he can grasp enough things through the four preseason games and through training camp so he can be effective,” said Ram offensive line coach Jim Erkenbeck, suggesting that Ashmore might play this season.
“He would not be the first drafted guy that I coached that has come in and in the middle of the season taken over a starting job. The analogy would be (ninth-rounder) Kevin Gogan from (the University of) Washington who came in (to the Dallas Cowboys’ camp) in ’86, first game that Kevin played was against Reggie White, had an excellent game, we won the game.”
The Rams, with 38-year-old Jackie Slater and Gerald Perry as their starting tackles and not much experience behind them, are eagerly looking for depth and future starters at the spot.
With Ashmore’s potential dancing before their eyes, the Rams see him as someone who can eventually add 20 pounds to his 300-pound frame and step in as an NFL right tackle.
“They’re all fun to coach,” Erkenbeck said, “but he’s especially fun because you think if he becomes a player at his size, he’s going to be great.
“This is a guy that looks like he’s going to be able to progress and become a good football player. I think he can pass-block and I know he can run-block. He’s got a lot of tools. There’s some things, of course, he needs to experience, but I feel very, very comfortable with him there.”
Ashmore said the reason he decided to attend Northwestern and bypass a chance to go to Auburn or to other Big Ten schools was the opportunity to play defense.
After two years on defense and two years battling back from a knee injury, he was convinced he had to devote his final year of eligibility to the offensive line.
“I think I was definitely an offensive personality from the get-go,” Ashmore said. “I was a good D-lineman, but I was an overachiever on D-line.
“I think I’m a prototype offensive lineman right now--tall, rangy and I’ve got a little weight under me.”
In his final year at Northwestern, his first at tackle, the team went 3-8, his coach, Francis Peay, was fired, and Ashmore had finished his college career without coming close to a winning season.
“It was really tough,” Ashmore said, specifically referring to the weekly blowouts the Wildcats suffered. “You never get used to them. You just wish you were somewhere else the next day. But you’ve got to go out there and practice the next week and gear it up. Basically just go all out the next week.”
The one tradition Northwestern does have, however, is being able to produce one NFL offensive lineman a decade. In the ‘80s, Chris Hinton, a converted tight end, was a first-round pick in 1983 and is still going strong for the Atlanta Falcons.
Ram Coach Chuck Knox, a former offensive line coach, said after Thursday’s two practices that although he didn’t want to rush to judgment on Ashmore, he saw plenty to like. He did point out that Ashmore needs to refine his pass-blocking to be effective in the NFL.
“Right now, he’s a little raw and everything,” said Ram defensive end Robert Young after going up against Ashmore several times Thursday morning.
“But I’m pretty sure in a few more practices, he’ll be one of the top contenders on the field. I went against him a little bit at mini-camp and he had all the tools of being a great player.
“I have respect for him, because there’s not too many offensive linemen who have come out like him. He’s no slouch, no way.”