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From USC to Buffalo and back, these former teammates know the drill

The practice matchup has played out thousands of times in more than seven years, first when they were teenage teammates at USC, then as young pros with the Buffalo Bills and now as NFL veterans preparing for their first season with the Rams.

Cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman bends his knees, stares directly across the line of scrimmage at receiver Robert Woods and readies for a challenge.

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It happened again during the Rams' organized team activities last week.

On a third-down play near the goal line, Woods ran a slant pattern into the end zone. Robey-Coleman matched him stride for stride as Woods anticipated a pass from quarterback Jared Goff.

Goff fired and Robey-Coleman reached in at the last moment and batted the ball away.

"It's like the old SC connection," Robey-Coleman said of the duel with Woods. "Going at it one on one — and afterward we always talk.

"It's all coming back. The best energy I've been feeling in a while."

About a month after signing Woods to a five-year, $34-million contract, the Rams in April signed Robey-Coleman to a one-year deal worth $855,000, according to spotrac.com.

"It feels great to be back in L.A," Robey-Coleman said. "Just like waking up this morning: It's sunny skies, clear weather and you can see the mountains while I'm at the [pre-practice] walkthrough."

Far different, he said, "than waking up in Buffalo and just going to work."

Robey-Coleman's return to the Southland has been marked by determination.

The 5-foot-8, 178-pound Florida native started for three seasons at USC before ignoring the advice of coaches and NFL evaluators and making himself available for the 2013 NFL draft after his junior year.

After going unselected, he said he had only a moment of regret about giving up his final year of college eligibility.

"It crossed my mind for one second," he said.

But the opportunity to make a team and earn an NFL salary kept him motivated: "I told myself, 'You've just got to capitalize. You not going in draft doesn't determine who you really are.'"

Robey-Coleman made the Bills as a rookie and played in all 32 games his first two seasons as a nickel back and on special teams. In 2015, the Bills signed him to a two-year, $4.1-million extension.

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After the 2015 season, he changed his name from Robey to Robey-Coleman in honor of his late mother, the former Maxine Coleman, who died from a heart attack during his senior year of high school.

Last season against the Rams, Robey-Coleman had a career-changing game at the Coliseum. With the score 16-16 late in the third quarter, he intercepted a pass by Case Keenum and returned it 41 yards for a touchdown. He added another interception late to seal a 30-19 Bills victory.

Rams general manager Les Snead recalled the performance when he saw Robey-Coleman's name surprisingly appear on the NFL transactions wire before the start of free agency. The Bills had released him in a cost-cutting move.

"You immediately go back to, 'Oh, yeah, there's a pick-six and we lived it,'" Snead said, adding, "The play meant something, but what it also meant is you definitely go back and watch the film and review his history."

Robey-Coleman is "undersized," Snead said, but the executive saw a determined and competitive player who became a mainstay for the Bills in the nickel role. And with the Rams planning to move Lamarcus Joyner from slot corner to free safety, they were in the market for proven defensive backs.

"Any time that you add depth like a Nickell does add, where he's played a lot of football, it gives you some versatility to move a special player like Lamarcus around," coach Sean McVay said.

The Rams, Robey-Coleman said, were a good fit for him professionally and because the move brought him closer to USC. He attended spring semester classes and is close to earning his degree, a promise he made to his mother.

Woods, who graduated from USC last year, said he was happy to be reunited with Robey and continue their daily duels.

"He's very, very smart — someone I can talk to on the side after plays," Woods said. "It's a great competition."

Robey-Coleman considers his long association with Woods, completing his education and his return to Los Angeles something else.

"I'm just so grateful," he said. "This is a blessing."

Follow Gary Klein on Twitter @latimesklein

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