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Rams’ Wright Eager to Learn, Grow Into a Starter : Football: Safety is projected to be a key player, but a few things need polishing.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ram Coach Chuck Knox describes rookie Toby Wright as a “human missile,” a search-and-destroy strong safety who’s projected to be a key defensive player.

For now, Wright is second-string behind Deral Boykin--a sixth-round pick last season who has yet to start a regular-season game--as he tries to learn the Rams’ defense.

“I can’t expect to come in here and be handed the job without understanding what the team does,” Wright said. “I just got here, so I’m not expecting the whole kitchen right away.”

The Rams invested a second-round draft pick in Wright in April. They projected him as their starter this season after allowing starting strong safety Michael Stewart to escape via free-agency to Miami and backup Pat Terrell to sign with the Jets.

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“I knew I was coming into a good position, and it still looks good now,” Wright said. “When I was drafted here, I knew Stewart had left and Terrell was about to leave, so I had to come in and learn my stuff as quick as possible.”

But learning the defense has been a slow, tedious and sometimes frustrating process for the former Nebraska defensive back. Coming from the run-oriented Big Eight Conference, Wright is getting a crash course in pass coverage in his first training camp.

“Yes, learning the defense has been my toughest adjustment,” Wright said. “So has learning technique and other people’s responsibilities within the defense.

“That has been the biggest step for me--understanding that my talent alone isn’t going to take me anywhere. Everybody at this level is an all-star. So you have to have that extra know-how, technique and understanding your responsibilities just to compete. You have to be accountable for your position.”

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The Rams have had to show patience with rookies before. Last season, rookie tight end Troy Drayton struggled to learn Ernie Zampese’s offense, sulked when the ball didn’t come his way and grew frustrated as the season progressed.

But assistant head coach Joe Vitt, who’s in charge of the safeties, has been pleased with Wright’s progress.

“There was a rap on Tony coming out of college that maybe he wasn’t a quick learner and couldn’t learn our defense,” Vitt said. “Toby made no mental errors last week and makes very few mistakes in practice. He’s an aware, intelligent football player, period.”

“There’s nothing holding him back, except for what holds any new guy back--learning the system, understanding the personnel in the league and getting grooved in.”

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So when will Wright be ready to start?

“Who knows?” Vitt said. “I just can’t look in a crystal ball and tell you. Every day we’re evaluating and putting in new things. As long as he works hard on improving his technique and skills, he’ll be fine.”

Wright came off the bench and played the second quarter of the Rams’ 14-6 exhibition loss to Green Bay on Saturday. He didn’t have a tackle on defense, but had one on special teams.

“I got some time,” Wright said. “But there just wasn’t any big action coming my way. I got one pretty good hit on special teams, though. I know I can contribute there.”

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Physically, Wright is the most impressive safety in the Rams’ camp. He is 5 feet 11, 203 pounds, and has an upper body that looks like it was carved from a block of marble.

After transferring from Phoenix Junior College to Nebraska in 1992, Wright earned a reputation as the Big Eight’s most feared run-stopper, finishing second on the team in tackles with 79 (43 solo).

With Wright’s versatility in the backfield and defensive end Trev Alberts’ speed up front, Nebraska switched from its 5-2 defensive formation to a 4-3 version, similar to what the Rams run, for the first time in several years.

“They put me at rover in that scheme because I could blitz, play like a linebacker and cover like a safety,” he said. “That’s the first time they had tried anything like that.”

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The Rams’ light-hitting practices haven’t exactly given Wright a chance to show what he does best--plow over people. Twice coaches have warned Wright for popping a running back in light-contact or no-contact drills.

“It’s killing me,” he said. “I got yelled at about it a couple times but I understand that. We have valuable players and we don’t want to lose them because of any crazy collisions.”


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