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Rookie Receiver Bruce Is Making a Good First Impression : Rams: With three of his 12 receptions going for touchdowns, opponents are beginning to pay more attention to him.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Just an impressionable rookie, Ram receiver Isaac Bruce watched, listened and learned as San Francisco cornerback Deion Sanders critiqued his pass routes.

During a game.

Wait a minute, a cornerback giving a receiver a hand with pass routes? What are you trying to pull on us, Isaac?

“He’s kind of a cool guy on the field,” Bruce said. “He knew I was a rookie and he was telling me the way to run my routes, to stay low, keep working at it, keep working him. He told me I would get better at it.”

A week earlier, Bruce, in his second NFL game, had made his first pro catch count--grabbing a 34-yard touchdown pass from Chris Miller against Atlanta.

After seeing that game film, Sanders, one of the best cover men and trash talkers in the league, could have just been ragging on the rookie in an attempt to lull him into his coverages.

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Bruce shook his head.

“Honestly, he was trying to help,” he said. “From the time I ran out of the huddle, he was smiling at me. I thought he was going to start ragging, but he was basically a good guy to me. He let me know what was wrong and what was right.”

Yes, Bruce, the fifth receiver taken in April’s draft, is catching on and beginning to get a little more attention from opposing defenses around the league.

A second-stringer behind Flipper Anderson and Jessie Hester, Bruce has caught 12 passes for 173 yards. He’s second among rookie wide receivers in touchdown catches with three, trailing only Cincinnati’s Darnay Scott (four).

So the Rams have a young wide receiver who has scored a touchdown one out of every four times he has touched the ball. Then why is he only splitting time with Hester?

“Could Isaac start? Absolutely,” said Steve Moore, Ram receivers coach. “Are we satisfied and happy with our current starters? The answer is yes.

“Isaac doesn’t just come in on passing downs. He mixes in about 50-50 with Hester right now. Jessie is clearly our starter, and he’s playing very, very well. He and Flipper have both done a very good job coaching our younger receivers, including Isaac.”

Asked if he should be starting, Bruce just shrugged.

“That’s not up to me,” he said. “That’s up to the coaches. If I was put in that position, I know I could get the job done.

“I think (the coaches) are gaining confidence in me and I’m gaining confidence in myself in practice. They’re starting to look for me more in games now.”

So are his teammates.

Quarterback Chris Chandler, a seven-year NFL veteran, ranks Bruce among the best rookie receivers he has played with.

“I played with Andre Rison (in Indianapolis),” Chandler said, “but he and Isaac are different kinds of receivers so you can’t really compare them.

“Isaac is playing real well, and I haven’t been around too many rookie receivers who have been better than him. He’s right up there with Flipper right now.”

Chandler said Bruce reminds him of Buffalo wide receiver Billy Brooks, who played with Chandler in Indianapolis.

“He’s the kind of guy who can jump out of the gym and make all the great catches,” Chandler said. “He just runs great routes and he has one of those attitudes where he will run all day for you and never complain. He just doesn’t quit.”

No, Bruce doesn’t quit. Maybe growing up 13th of 15 children in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., makes you a little tougher in that respect.

No, Bruce didn’t quit when his SAT scores were too low to let him accept a football scholarship to Purdue. He enrolled for two years at Santa Monica College, improved his grades and played well enough to land a scholarship to Memphis State after his sophomore year.

As a junior, he was the Tigers’ second-leading receiver (39 catches for 532 yards and five touchdowns) and led the team as a senior with 74 catches for 1,054 yards and 10 touchdowns.

“Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be back out here,” Bruce said of returning to Los Angeles. “Two years ago, I was out watching the Rams scrimmage the Chargers in San Diego, and I never figured then that I would get out this way again.”

But he did, mainly because the Rams were struggling to sign a top wide receiver in the off-season. They failed to trade for Dallas’ Alvin Harper on draft day and free-agent Haywood Jeffires turned them down twice to re-signed with Houston.

A few days before the draft, John Becker, the Rams’ director of player personnel, reviewed some of the wide receivers Rams had looked at--USC’s Johnnie Morton, Colorado’s Charles Johnson, Michigan’s Derrick Alexander and Alabama’s David Palmer.

Becker had one more name on the list--Bruce.

Moore had worked out Bruce, 6-feet and 178 pounds, at Memphis State and liked his athletic ability. Bruce ran a 4.48-second 40-yard dash and ran smooth routes during the scouting combines. It was enough to convince Becker and Moore that Bruce was their man.

“He’s just silky smooth,” Moore said. “He’s as quick as a cat, has a nice run after the catch and gets in and out of cuts.”

The Rams could have taken Johnson or Alexander with the 16th pick, but bypassed him for Auburn offensive tackle Wayne Gandy. So when Bruce slipped to the second round, the Rams grabbed him with their pick, the 33rd overall.

“I was overlooked a little bit (in the draft),” Bruce said, “but it doesn’t hurt me because I’m in a great situation out here in Los Angeles.

“I think it was just an exposure problem (at Memphis State). I was only on one nationally televised game in my college career, and some of those other guys were on every week.”

The playing field is even now--Bruce is sharing the spotlight with Johnson, Alexander, Morton and Scott on Sunday afternoons.

Alexander has 28 catches for 481 yards and a touchdown, and Scott is having a fine season with 24 catches for 525 yards. Morton has struggled at Detroit and hasn’t played as a receiver. Johnson got off to a great start in Pittsburgh--catching 18 passes for 243 yards--but hasn’t contributed much in the past few weeks.

“I’m getting a lot more play than some of the other rookie receivers around the league,” Bruce said. “A lot more than a lot of the first-rounders, and that’s surprising to me.”

How does he think he stacks up against them?

“Pretty well,” he said. “I see Darnay having a pretty good season. It’s all just opportunity as a rookie.”

So the education of Isaac Bruce continues every Sunday afternoon. Moore proudly quotes a statistic you won’t find in the box scores--Bruce hasn’t made an assignment error in a game yet this season.

“That’s a strong statement for a rookie,” he said. “He’s a good student, and he gives football the time he needs to give it off the field so he’s mistake-free.”

Bruce eagerly awaits the Rams’ Nov. 20 rematch with San Francisco--and Sanders. But what if Bruce beats Deion deep a couple times, will he be quite so helpful as he was last time?

“Yeah,” Bruce said, smiling. “It’ll probably change then.”

Measuring Up

Isaac Bruce was the fifth wide receiver taken in the NFL draft last April. How Bruce’s statistics stack up with other top rookie receivers this season:

Round (overall) Player Team Rec. Yds. TD First (17th) Charles Johnson Pittsburgh 18 243 1 First (21st) Johnnie Morton Detroit 0 0 0 First (29th) Derrick Alexander Cleveland 28 481 1 Second (30th) Darnay Scott Cincinnati 24 525 4 Second (33rd) Isaac Bruce Rams 12 173 3

Source: NFL statistics


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