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Ashmore Has the Confidence to Replace Ram Legend : NFL: Right tackle says he’s prepared to assume starter’s role ahead of 40-year-old Jackie Slater.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Right tackle Jackie Slater cracked the Rams’ starting lineup in 1979, beginning a reign that would span 15 years and three head coaching changes.

But Slater practiced with the second-string offense during Monday’s training camp workout in an apparent changing of the guard at right tackle.

Darryl Ashmore, a third-year player who started seven games last season in place of an injured Slater, practiced with the first string, an indication that the team might be moving Slater to the bench.

“It just seems that’s the way things are going to shake down,” said Slater, who started in the Rams’ 14-6 exhibition loss to the Green Bay Packers Saturday.

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“Darryl is a young player who’s improving. I remember what it was like sitting there my first three years and waiting for my chance to start. And the last 15 years, I’ve been the guy.

“So this practice was a little foreign for me. I guess this (change) is something that’s inevitable as far as my getting out of the game.”

Slater signed a one-year, $500,000 contract in the off-season and nobody within the organization indicated that he would be the starting right tackle when the season begins.

The Rams have hedged on naming a starter mostly out of respect for Slater, who has played in 246 games since joining the team in 1976, more games than any player in team history.

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“If the season started today, the starter would be Ashmore,” said Jim Erkenbeck, offensive line coach. “But it could be Jackie by tomorrow. There’s really only one job locked up on the offensive line right now, and that’s (center) Bern Brostek.”

Said Ram Coach Chuck Knox: “We haven’t made any real decision there because we want to work him (Ashmore) in there and see how he does.

“We haven’t designated him the starter because it’s too early. A lot of things can happen between now and that first game.”

Slater was pursued by the Atlanta Falcons during the off-season before re-signing with the Rams. With his contract expiring at the end of the season, has he given any thought to retiring?

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“Obviously you think about retiring when you get to be my age,” said Slater, 40. “But at this point in time, my goal is just to, believe it or not, try to get a little better and help out wherever I can.”

While much of the attention during training camp has focused on the progress of rookie left tackle Wayne Gandy, Ashmore has quietly been groomed to replace Slater.

“I’m one of Jackie’s biggest fans,” Ashmore said. “I support him in everything he does, and he supports me.

“In my three years here, I have sat on the sidelines and watched how he practices, moves around, relates to his teammates. I learned from him in not just a football sense, but a ‘real world’ sense.”

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Ashmore, 6 feet 7 and 300 pounds, missed most of last year’s training camp recovering from a torn knee ligament, then spent the first seven games on the team’s inactive list.

“I came back for the last game of preseason, but I was very rusty,” Ashmore said. “I had to groom myself for seven more weeks before I got my chance.”

Ashmore, 24, started seven games last season after Slater was sidelined with a torn chest muscle and backup Robert Jenkins dislocated his toe.

“Darryl did a real good job,” Erkenbeck said. “He improved dramatically between the first game and the end of the season.”

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Ashmore struggled in his NFL debut, coming off the bench in a 40-17 loss at San Francisco on Oct 31.

He was whistled twice for illegal-formation penalties, one for lining up off the line of scrimmage on a second-quarter drive. He was later called for being offsides. Quarterback T.J. Rubley was sacked seven times for losses totaling 48 yards.

“It was a big-time learning experience,” Ashmore said. “I was thrown into the fire pretty early in the season. My only concern each game was improving, and I feel I did that.”

Knox has made upgrading the offensive line a priority. There’s little question that the offense’s effectiveness, and quarterback Chris Miller’s health, rely heavily on the development of Ashmore, a 1992 seventh-round draft pick from Northwestern, and Gandy, the Rams’ 1994 first-round selection from Auburn.

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“I have a lot more confidence now,” Ashmore said. “I’ve gone against some of the top defensive linemen in the league, guys like Trace Armstrong and Reggie White. I have that under my belt, and I feel I can compete with anybody.”

Ashmore said the offensive line’s goal is to give up one sack or less a game. Giving up 20 sacks this season would “be real good, considering how young our line is.”

“We have our work cut out for us,” he said.

“People are taking us lightly, and that’s what we want. I hope they do that, because we’re much improved. The newspaper says we’re the same ‘old Rams’ and stuff like that, so obviously the writers don’t believe it either.”

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