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Ram Backup Thrust Into Forefront : Pro football: Homco becomes team’s second-leading tackler while filling in for injured middle linebacker Conlan.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A quickie name-recognition quiz:

A Homco is a . . .

A. Place where you get building materials.

B. Members-only discount store that sells green beans by the case and detergent in containers the size of small trash cans.

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C. Starting middle linebacker in the NFL.

Ram fans--some of them, anyway--might get this one right.

Thomas Homco started in place of injured Shane Conlan Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers and didn’t play like a guy who deserves to be paid 6% of what the guy he replaced makes. Conlan, who will earn $2.3 million this year, made more money standing on the sideline with a clipboard Sunday than Homco will make all year.

But when you’re an undrafted free agent who played in a sorry defense at Northwestern and then spent your first year in the NFL on the practice squad, you’re not worried about salary discrepancies. At the moment, Homco is only concerned with making sure the Ram coaches know his name.

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“I wasn’t happy Shane got hurt, but I was happy I got the chance to play,” Homco said. “I made some plays, made some tackles and hopefully I’ve taken the first step toward establishing myself as a quality NFL linebacker. I hope I showed the coaching staff that I can step in without missing a beat.”

Homco, who has a face out of a peanut butter commercial and a body out of Gold’s Gym, is the Rams’ second-leading tackler with 16. He had seven tackles--five in the first quarter when Pittsburgh was still trying to run the ball--and an interception during Sunday’s 27-0 victory.

But the Rams are raving about his smarts as much as his helmet-to-helmet work. They’ve seen huge biceps before and this middle linebacker gig requires a guy to think. After all, the Rams hung on to Larry Kelm last year--despite some obvious physical deficiencies--and kept talking about how bright he was when it came to running the defense.

"(Homco) made the right calls, handled the signals from the sideline and was in on a lot of tackles,” Coach Chuck Knox said. “We had very few defensive assignment errors.”

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Linebacker coach Dick Selcer emerged from a film session looking like a guy who had just seen the feel-good movie of the summer.

“You have to understand that there’s a lot of pressure on a guy coming in to replace a player like Shane. That’s a big job to start the game and help win the game.

“How many rookies make an impact in the second game of their careers? Especially at a position that complicated. You look around the league and you see young guys who’ve been forced into it and they make a lot of mistakes that hurt you. There’s a lot of instantaneous reaction to what the offense is doing. The guy in the middle has to make a lot of adjustments and it’s difficult.

“But he’s a very intelligent person and he’s very competitive. He was prepared and he met the challenge.”

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Homco was not informed that he was starting until moments before the game, but he had replaced Conlan in the opener and was aware he would probably play. Clearly, he was focused and ready.

“I don’t worry about messing up, because if you worry about messing up, you’ll be on pins and needles for the whole game and you’ll never be able to be aggressive and make any plays,” he said. “I prepared hard all week. I studied. I watched film. I prepared hard for six weeks of training camp, for the whole off-season.

“When my time came, I was supposed to be prepared. Granted, I don’t have as much experience as you’d like, but they trusted in me. They had confidence I could get the job done. And I think it went OK.”

According to Knox, it went better than OK. Someday, Homco and Knox might meet in blue-collar heaven.

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“It’s gratifying because he played well and we won the football game,” Knox said. “But it’s also gratifying to see a guy who was here last year on the practice squad go out and have the kind of game he had. He’s worked hard, paid his dues and now, given the opportunity to play, he played well.”

Homco has never asked for anything but a chance.

“I was always confident in my abilities, but the thing I was worried most about was whether or not I’d get that shot,” he said. “I didn’t get a lot of exposure, I played on a defense that was last in the Big Ten and I wasn’t drafted.

“I always thought I’d been blessed with enough and was persistent enough that if I could just get in a camp, I’d be able to stick.”

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He stuck. OK, maybe clung would be a better word.

Selcer, who was going to Northwestern to work out another player, agreed to take a look at Homco, too.

“He was strong and his speed tests the day I worked him out were really good,” Selcer said. “That’s two good places to start. But he also had an awareness and a sense of urgency about getting his chance that stuck with me.”

He had only an outside chance of making the team, so Homco was determined to make a good impression during last year’s first exhibition game. On the opening kickoff, he sprinted down the field and hurled himself at the wedge, throwing his forearm up and out at the point of impact.

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His right hand was crushed between his helmet and another player’s.

“Oh, man, I felt bad,” he said, fingering the scar that runs the length of his hand like an extension of his index finger. “I was a longshot to make the team, but I was having a really good camp. I broke quite a few bones in my hand and I had surgery the next day. They put a steel plate in there and bolted it all together.

“It never bothers me now, but back then, I thought that was it. I thought I was gone. But I guess they had seen enough to keep me around on the practice squad.”

Homco didn’t get to run the Ram defense in practice; he was always pretending to be the next opponent. But the time in the film sessions and team meetings helped him understand the scheme and learn his assignments.

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This year, he was able to take in enough in the classroom and put out enough on the field to convince Knox that he was a viable backup for Conlan. Still, Homco was placed on waivers when rosters were cut to 47 and brought back when they were expanded to 53.

“They told me it was just a numbers game and that they would be picking me back up,” Homco said. “I mean they only had me and Shane. I was just a good candidate to clear waivers. My only concern was that somebody else might pick me up. We had played San Diego a lot and I had a pretty good game against the Raiders, so I thought they might be willing to take a stab.

“It was a little nerve-racking and kind of weird. For one day, you sort of didn’t want to be wanted.”

Then Conlan suffered a groin injury in the opener and Homco was the Rams’ man in the middle.

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“Shane’s going to play as soon as he’s ready, but I hope the Rams know that if they need me, I’ll be able to do the job. I’m the backup now, but someday, maybe not too far down the road . . . I hope to be a part of this defense for a long time to come.”


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