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Cory Littleton is in the middle of Rams' rebuilt defense at linebacker

Cory Littleton is in the middle of Rams' rebuilt defense at linebacker
Cory Littleton (58) runs through workouts during the Rams' organized team activities. The linebacker is now the signal-caller for the Rams' defense. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

The journey began at the outer fringes of the roster and included a delay in the Pacific Northwest.

Now Cory Littleton is suddenly right in the middle of the Rams’ defense.

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Two years ago, after he signed as an undrafted free agent, Littleton sat out nearly all organized team activity workouts because he was required to finish the spring quarter at the University of Washington. He pored over the Rams’ playbook in Seattle, and when he finally joined the team he earned a roster spot as a valuable special teams contributor.

Last year during OTAs, Littleton studied and played behind veteran linebackers Alec Ogletree and Mark Barron, earning a role as a featured back-up and spot starter.

The Rams traded Ogletree in March, so Littleton has spent OTAs acclimating to new responsibilities.

He is a starting inside linebacker and signal caller for a remade, star-studded defense that is expected to help the Rams move beyond the first round of the playoffs.

“Basically,” he said of his role, “the quarterback of the defense.”

It’s a big promotion for a first-year starter in a unit that will include star defensive linemen Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh and cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters.

Littleton, 24, acknowledged that he was adjusting to fit the role.

“I’m not the most vocal person,” he said, smiling. “I do my best.”

The linebacker corps is the biggest question mark for a defense that appears stout along the front and talented and deep in the secondary.

The Rams finished 11-5 and made the playoffs last season with a defense that ranked 19th overall, 13th against the pass and 28th against the run. They allowed the 12th-fewest points.

General manager Les Snead made several offseason moves to provide defensive coordinator Wade Phillips with players that specifically fit his 3-4 scheme.

The makeover began when the Rams traded veteran linebacker/edge rusher Robert Quinn to the Miami Dolphins for draft picks. It continued when they shipped Ogletree to the New York Giants for picks to clear salary room for the acquisition of Talib. And they let veteran linebacker Connor Barwin leave to test free agency.

Barron, a six-year veteran, is attending but not participating in OTA workouts, the same model the Rams utilized last year to make sure he made it to and through the season without physical setbacks.

That has provided Phillips, coach Sean McVay and linebackers coach Joe Barry an opportunity to closely assess others.

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Ramik Wilson, who started 17 games for the Kansas City Chiefs in his first three pro seasons, said he was adjusting quickly to a new system and teammates.

“A lot of the pass concepts and run fits are very similar to what we did in K.C.,” he said. “There’s a little more different terminology but it’s been great.”

Littleton, Wilson and veteran Bryce Hager also have helped rookies such as Micah Kiser, a fifth-round draft pick from Virginia.

“They’ve been very supportive of me asking them questions,” Kiser said. “When you come to this level, they don’t have to help you out, but they’ve been really good. The culture here is great.”

McVay said the inside linebackers have weathered tough situations against an offense that features 10 starters from last season, including ascending quarterback Jared Goff and reigning NFL offensive player of the year Todd Gurley.

“They’ve handled it well,” McVay said of the inside linebackers. “We’ll have a better feel toward the end of the offseason program and then going into training camp.”

Second-year pro Samson Ebukam is starting in Quinn’s vacated outside spot, showing the speed that enabled him to record two sacks as a back-up last season.

As with Littleton in 2016, Ebukam was unable to participate in OTA workouts immediately after the 2017 draft because classes at Eastern Washington were still in session.

So he is embracing the OTA opportunity.

“I don’t plan on giving it up,” Ebukam said of his starting role. “Just trying to be my best, be coachable and show what I got.”

With offenses having to account for Donald, Suh and Michael Brockers, Ebukam foresees regular chances for sacks.

“That’s heaven for me,” he said of the matchup problems created by the defensive line.

Littleton also should benefit from playing behind an experienced front.

But it will be his job to help direct the veterans, and carry out the directions of the coaching staff.

He did not envision the signal-calling responsibility when he began his pro career.

“It makes me feel good as a player,” he said, “that they believe in me.”

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