Rams finish training camp practices at UC Irvine
A beachside hotel and bike rides to practice are just two of the things Sean McVay missed about training camp last year, but they weren’t the main reason why the Rams coach was pleased to return to UC Irvine for preseason practices. That distinction goes to those who dressed in jerseys, slathered on sunscreen and sat under sideline tents to bring energy to a team that was forced to work behind pandemic-locked doors last year.
“This setting, being around the people, this is one of the things you love so much about the game,” McVay said Tuesday after the Rams’ last practice at UC Irvine. “It’s been definitely refreshing to feel normal again.”
The Rams wrapped up their two-week stint in Orange County and were serenaded by fans with chants of “Whose house? Ram’s house!” as they walked off the field for the last time this year.
Star defensive lineman Aaron Donald, linebacker Kenny Young and cornerback Dont’e Deavon repaid the Rams faithful by tossing them practice-worn gear. Coronavirus protocols discourage players from coming within six feet of the crowd, so one fan threw a football to a socially distanced Donald, who signed it and tossed it back before also lobbing his cleats over the waist-high fence. The three-time defensive player of the year walked off the field with just socks on his feet.
“Last year, with COVID and everything, it kind of sucked a little bit not being able to come out here,” second-year safety Terrell Burgess said. “It was fun to have the fans out here and I’m excited for the season to get going.”
The Rams play their first preseason game Saturday against the Chargers. McVay said many players won’t feature in the team’s three-game preseason schedule, which makes practices even more important to prepare other, lesser-known players for the exhibition games.
“We’re leaving here, but we’re not breaking training camp,” McVay said.
The coach said he wanted the team to “continue to stack blocks” as preseason preparations return to the team’s headquarters in Thousand Oaks. McVay wants heightened competition and improved mental focus and concentration.
The team proved McVay right when the second-string offense committed two false starts in three plays during a team period Tuesday. The unit led by Devlin Hodges was removed from the field before getting to fourth down.
Observations from Tuesday’s practice:
— Running back Darrell Henderson Jr. injured his right wrist in the first team period and was limited for the rest of practice. After getting hit in the pile, Henderson fumbled the ball, which was recovered by defensive back Donovan Olumba, and the running back left the field briefly with trainers. He returned with tape wrapped around his right wrist and participated in two plays during the short yardage team period but didn’t take another rep for the rest of practice.
Jake Funk and Xavier Jones were the main running backs with Henderson sidelined.
— Rookie linebacker Ernest Jones had a standout play in pass defense by picking off Hodges in a seven-on-second period. Hodges was attempting to throw over the middle during the red zone drill, but Jones jumped in front of the receiver and ran past midfield before getting pushed out of bounds.
— Brian Allen took the majority of the snaps with the No. 1 offense at center with Austin Corbett moving to right guard. Allen hasn’t played in a game since 2019, when he suffered a knee injury that landed him on injured reserve, but impressed coaches enough to be listed as the starting center on an unofficial depth chart released this week. Said McVay: “If you were to say one of the standouts of camp, Brian Allen is definitely one of those guys for me.”
— Quarterback John Wolford returned to the field Tuesday but didn’t participate in any drills after undergoing an appendectomy this week. Wolford will not play in Saturday’s preseason game.
— Left tackle Andrew Whitworth rested Tuesday, watching practice in street clothes on the field.
— Cornerback Darious Williams missed practice with an ankle injury and receiver Van Jefferson was absent because of COVID protocols. McVay said Jefferson’s first test was positive for the coronavirus, but a second test was negative. The team must wait 24 hours to confirm whether it was a false positive, but McVay said he anticipates Jefferson will return soon.
Rams quarterback Devlin Hodges gets another shot to show his skills
The absence of backup quarterback John Wolford at Rams training camp on Monday is ultimately mundane. Most fans in attendance wouldn’t have noticed. His ailment — appendicitis — is unlikely to affect his availability once the season starts.
For Devlin Hodges, though, it represents something different. A door cracking open, with stability sitting on the other side.
“Any time you get more reps it creates more opportunities,” Hodges said after practice Monday. “I’ve always been a guy that, my two years in this league, I’ve had limited opportunities.”
Limited is a way of putting it. After getting signed by the Pittsburgh Steelers as an undrafted free agent in 2019, Hodges was cut, signed to the practice squad, promoted to the roster, played eight games after injuries gave him a shot, cut again, signed to the practice squad again, became a free agent, then signed with the Rams to back up Matt Stafford and Wolford.
“I don’t know a word for it but it’s been just crazy,” Hodges said.
It’s not an atypical path for someone in his shoes. But it does make the stakes a bit higher when he takes the practice field on a scorching day in August. Hodges, perhaps as much as anyone else, knows how fast chances in the NFL can come and go.
“He’s done a good job,” Rams coach Sean McVay said. “What’s impressive is you can feel he’s a guy that’s played football. The game makes sense. He’s got great wide-field vision. There’s a lot of different things in terms of the vernacular, the verbiage that’s new to him [given] his previous background in Pittsburgh.
“He’s a natural thrower. He’s got good feel, good command in the huddle and I like what he’s done.”
The verbiage, a point that Hodges brought up as well, is yet another gate to hop over as a player whose situation changes constantly. With the Steelers, Hodges called plays off a wristband. With the Rams, play calls get spit out based on feel. He doesn’t have it down quite yet.
“Study it every night in the meetings, listening — biggest thing for me is listening to the play calls,” Hodges said. “Even when Matthew’s going, John’s going, just hear a play call and kinda in my head, visualize it. Take those mental reps but I don’t have any nice science down to it.”
McVay said that in Saturday’s preseason opener against the Chargers, Hodges and Bryce Perkins — another undrafted free agent with his own story to tell — would get a balanced number of reps with the second team.
That is about as much of a guarantee about his future as Hodges can expect to get right now.
With Hodges’ position comes the natural onset of doubt. When Hodges was cut by the Steelers for the first time, he sat on his couch wondering what would be next. When he most recently became a free agent, his agent reached out within a couple of days to tell him the Rams would be interested.
“Coach [Mike] Tomlin was always like, ‘Duck, you’re gonna be successful in life,’” Hodges said. “My mom said that. So at the end of the day, I’m blessed to be out here. I’m excited for whatever comes.”
The door is open, even if just a crack. Now it’s about what lies beyond.
Observations from Monday’s practice
- Rookie cornerback Robert Rochell returned to practice and was in pads after undergoing wrist surgery about a week ago. He wore a hard brace and cast.
- Linebacker Terrell Lewis sat out Monday’s practice. McVay told reporters Lewis’ knee condition was “acting up.” The 2020 third-round pick played just eight games last year after undergoing a procedure on the knee and opening the season on the reserve/nonfootball injury list, then missing four games late in the season with a knee injury.
- The Rams rotated Brian Allen and Austin Corbett at first-team center. Allen also got first-team work at center in the scrimmage against the Dallas Cowboys on Saturday, with McVay saying the situation was a result of how well he’s played.
“We’re still in the middle of evaluating what does it look like, to figure out that best combination of those five guys up front,” McVay said, “but the way Brian’s played consistently through camp — like we’ve said, we know Austin Corbett can be a really good right guard. Bobby Evans has shown that he can be a starting caliber player for us as well.”
Rams rookie Tutu Atwell is finally off COVID list, but has some catching up to do
After 10 days trapped in a hotel room, Tutu Atwell emerged onto the sun-soaked practice field in Irvine, ready for his long-awaited first practice with the Rams.
The rail-thin second-round rookie already had missed six practices, putting him behind where the Rams hoped their top pick might be at this point in training camp.
Atwell was placed on the COVID-19 reserve list on July 27, just after rookies reported, and remained there the full 10 days. That is standard protocol for an unvaccinated player to isolate, if he tests positive or has come into close contact with someone who does.
Even as he returned Wednesday, Atwell’s camp premiere proved to be more of a cameo.
After briefly running routes against air, Atwell was pulled as a precaution. He’d hit his yardage limit, Rams coach Sean McVay said.
“It’s going to be a smart progression that we put in place,” McVay said of Atwell. “Even just running routes on air, getting comfortable hearing the terminology in the huddle, breaking it, getting lined up the right way. You can tell he’s a smart, conscientious guy. Expect him to get up to speed pretty quickly.”
He has plenty of ground to make up. With Atwell out, second-year undrafted wideout Trishton Jackson was able to make an impression, stating his case to earn a spot in the receiving corps.
“He’s much more confident,” McVay said of Jackson. “He’s got the physical skills. I’m a big fan of him.”
Atwell is still working on that part. The Louisville product weighed in at just 155 pounds when he last spoke to reporters in late July before he was headed for the COVID-19 list. It’s unclear how 10 days in isolation might’ve changed that number.
“He looks jacked now,” McVay deadpanned.
Observations from Day 7 …
—After a serious scare with Matthew Stafford’s surgically repaired thumb, Sean McVay isn’t taking any more chances of a similar injury. On Wednesday, the Rams top offensive and defensive linemen were outfitted with padded helmet protectors to ensure it doesn’t happen again.
“Better safety, no swag with those things on,” McVay said, “but hey, we’ll be safe and smart. Guys were great about it because they understand why.”
—Several veterans sat out practice for regular maintenance after the camp’s first padded practice the day before. Aaron Donald, DeSean Jackson, Tyler Higbee and Leonard Floyd were all in street clothes, giving some younger players a chance to shine.
One of those who stepped up was defensive tackle Sebastian Joseph-Day, who was an interior pass rushing terror all practice long. Without Donald in the lineup, McVay said, Joseph-Day was challenged to elevate his game, and he obliged.
—With Higbee out, reserve tight end Johnny Mundt had an especially impressive practice, punctuated by a deep crossing route that required some athleticism to reel in a pass. McVay was pumped after the play and has complimented Mundt several times over the last few days. Rookie Jacob Harris also had his moments, , even catching a back-shoulder touchdown during red-zone practice.
After Matthew Stafford gets thumbs up, Rams get same feedback at camp practice
—After 10 days on the COVID-19 list, offensive line coach Kevin Carberry and rookie wide receiver Tutu Atwell are technically available to return to Rams camp. McVay confirmed that Carberry will return. But for Atwell, who spent the last 10 days isolated in a hotel room, it might be a bit longer before he’s worked back into the offense.
“We’ll be smart with how we bring Tutu back into the practice rhythm and routine,” McVay said. “We’re not going to just throw him right back into it. He’s been sitting in his hotel room, not doing anything. Be interested to see how much he weighs right now.”
—He might not have had the first-team offense to himself as he might’ve anticipated, but backup quarterback John Wolford did manage to drop a dime deep to receiver JJ Koski, who had managed to sneak past Jalen Ramsey and catch the pass in perfect position.
—Rookie linebacker Ernest Jones showcased his ability in coverage, hanging closely with Rams starting tight end Tyler Higbee on one pass to force an overthrow. Not long after, Jones deflected another pass, nearly picking it off, only for Higbee to catch the ricochet. Regardless, Jones has looked like a capable option in a wide-open competition at off-ball linebacker.
—Safety Nick Scott ended practice with one of the best defensive plays of the day when he picked off Stafford in the two-minute drill. It was impressive enough to solicit praise afterward from Stafford, who called it “as good of a play as I’ve been around at the safety spot.”
—Fourth-round tight end Jacob Harris was finally worked into team offense after dealing with an injury. Left tackle Andrew Whitworth sat out with a veteran rest day, while linebacker Terrell Lewis sat out as a precaution to keep his knee issues at bay.
Jalen Ramsey burns Matthew Stafford, who then gets on a roll
Jalen Ramsey watched the new quarterback’s eyes, ready to pounce.
Matthew Stafford had earned only rave reviews over the first four days of Rams camp, flashing the kind of veteran savvy and pinpoint accuracy that inspired the franchise to trade significant assets for him in the offseason. But as Stafford laced a throw near the left sideline during a team portion of Saturday’s practice, the Rams’ top cornerback got the best of the new quarterback.
A pass intended for wide receiver Cooper Kupp was stolen away by Ramsey, the cornerback was off to the races, and the veteran quarterback, forced to confront his first major mistake of camp, set about burning the Rams’ top-notch defense to a crisp.
There was a no-look pass to running back Darrell Henderson, a sidearm slingshot to Kupp for a corner score, a laser to receiver Robert Woods over the middle. For the rest of the team period, an especially determined Stafford unleashed every weapon in his arsenal.
On his final throw of practice, Stafford uncorked a deep ball to Woods for a session-ending touchdown, giving the offense the last word and sending Rams coach Sean McVay sprinting up the sideline.
“The goal is being able to push one another,” McVay said. “When you get into those competitive situations, that’s exactly what we want to see.”
It was also further proof of the strong early connection between Stafford and Woods, who had a standout performance Saturday.
“I was able to send it off on a good note,” Woods said.
Observations from Day 4:
— The pads won’t come on until Tuesday, so the pecking order in the Rams’ backfield could look radically different a week from now. But through the first three days of camp, Xavier Jones has served as the No. 2 back behind Henderson, while seventh-round rookie Jake Funk has been close behind him. Funk, who tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee twice at Maryland, showed some nice acceleration on a touchdown run during the team period, shaking a defender in the backfield, then speeding up to pass another.
— The competition at outside linebacker beyond Leonard Floyd is wide open, but Justin Hollins might have an inside track. Hollins was claimed off waivers by the Rams last season and still managed to tally three sacks. He could be in line for even more opportunity if he’s able to stave off the likes of Ogbonnia Okoronkwo. “Hollins showed me a lot last year,” Floyd said Saturday. “He’s building on that, taking it one practice at a time, and growing from rep to rep.”
— Rookie tight end Jacob Harris is still working his way back from a minor injury suffered during the spring, but you wouldn’t know it judging by the first few days of camp. The fourth-round pick has proved himself to be a physical specimen. He dropped a few passes from Stafford during drills, but the raw skills are clearly there, even if he’s a bit lanky at 6 feet 5, 210 pounds.
— Rookie cornerback Robert Rochell injured his wrist during Friday’s practice and will have surgery. His timeline to return is undetermined, but the injury is a setback for the fourth-round pick, who had a chance to earn a role in the Rams’ secondary rotation. Rookie defensive tackle Bobby Brown III suffered a thumb injury and also will have surgery. He’s expected back within a week.
Rams have to hope Darrell Henderson can keep the offense running
The last time Darrell Henderson stepped into a true workhorse role, South Panola High School didn’t lose a game on its way to a Class 6A Mississippi football state title. Over 16 games the Tigers rode their star running back and Henderson delivered, steamrolling defenses for 2,253 yards and 32 touchdowns on his way to being named the state’s Gatorade Player of the Year.
It’s been a while since Henderson has shouldered that heavy of a workload, but with lead back Cam Akers likely out for the season with a torn Achilles tendon, the weight of an unproven Rams backfield now rests on Henderson’s shoulders.
“If it’s on me, then I’m ready for it,” Henderson said Friday, with a thick Mississippi drawl.
For the moment, there’s no one else to threaten Henderson’s ascent in the Rams offense. Rams coach Sean McVay so far has balked at any mention of adding veteran help in the wake of Akers’ injury, leaving Henderson at the head of a backfield that otherwise has zero combined career carries to its name.
The former third-round pick stepped briefly into a leading role last year, starting 11 games as Akers found his footing and dealt with injuries as a rookie. Over a six-week stretch last season, Henderson averaged 15.5 touches per game while tallying 514 total yards and four touchdowns, offering evidence he could handle the reins if need be.
It wasn’t the first time he offered glimpses of three-down potential. At Memphis, Henderson largely split carries but still managed to touch the ball 233 times over 13 games during his final season.
“He’s got the ability, there’s no doubt about it,” McVay said. “It’s really just figuring out what’s going to be the best — I don’t want to say pitch count — but the best way to utilize him and really have the big-picture in mind. He’s our most established guy without a doubt. I think we’re really excited to see who develops and who really establishes themselves behind him. But as far as a three-down, I know he’s capable of doing that. If we feel like that’s the best approach, we’ll do that.”
The most pressing question with Henderson is health. Injuries caught up with him down the stretch in 2020. After dealing with a hamstring injury early last season, he injured his thigh in November, leaving Akers to take over the backfield. In late December, Henderson suffered a high ankle sprain — his second in two years — which ended his season.
Asked if he’d done anything to improve his durability over the offseason, Henderson shrugged.
“At this position, there’s no way to prevent injury,” he said. “You’re getting hit every play. This is a physical position, and you have to be ready for it.”
With that threat constantly looming, the Rams plan to be especially conservative with the last experienced back left on the roster. McVay said at the start of training camp that Henderson won’t play in any preseason games in attempt to keep him healthy for the start of the season.
That should leave plenty of preseason opportunities for another back to step into a secondary role. But who might emerge from the stable of undrafted free agents and unproven late-round picks behind him is anyone’s guess.
Xavier Jones, who signed with the Rams as an undrafted free agent last season, has taken some reps with the second-team offense at the start of camp, while Jake Funk, a seventh-round rookie from Maryland, led the Big Ten in yards per carry (8.6) last season. Raymond Calais and rookie Otis Anderson are the only other two backs on the roster.
They’ll all be looking up to Henderson, who’s just entering his third season.
“Darrell has a lot of experience now,” McVay said. “He can impart some wisdom on these guys.”
Rams’ Cooper Kupp can tell Matthew Stafford’s quarterbacking is old hat for veteran
“He’s like, what, 57 years old learning a new offense right now,” receiver Cooper Kupp said Thursday of the 33-year-old quarterback. “It’s not easy to teach an old dog new tricks, but he’s doing a great job grasping our stuff.”
Stafford is showing his age in the best way possible for the Rams as he continues to pick up the offense quickly in training camp.
The former Lions quarterback’s experience is evident in his ability to manipulate the defense in subtle ways. He showed it off in a throw that Kupp called “just disgusting” as Stafford held the safety in position with his eyes and threw a no-look pass across the middle to Robert Woods. The play also overcame a mistake from a receiver who ran the wrong route.
—Stafford is quickly developing a rapport with receiver DeSean Jackson, who caught a long pass from Stafford in the first seven-on-seven period. Although he is coming off an ankle injury that limited him to five games for the Eagles last season, Jackson has shown teammates that he’s still a deep threat. Kupp estimated Jackson already has the two longest plays of the young training camp.
“This guy, he’s unbelievable,” said coach Sean McVay, who was Jackson’s offensive coordinator for three seasons in Washington. “He’s a freak. … He’s a special player, I’ve really enjoyed being back with him again and he definitely looks like the same DeSean that I’ve seen.”
Jackson, 34, is the second-oldest player on the Rams’ roster, trailing only 39-year-old left tackle Andrew Whitworth.
DeSean Jackson has been in a Sean McVay offense before, so once he gets acclimated with quarterback Matthew Stafford he is certain the Rams offense is going to be great.
—Linebacker Ernest Jones showed up in pass defense by breaking up a pass from Stafford in a seven-on-seven period and getting a finger on another pass during a full team scrimmage. Jones, a rookie from South Carolina, likely could have gotten an interception on the first play as Stafford’s throw seemed destined for no particular offensive player after what appeared to be a miscommunication.
“He’s a guy who’s an instinctual player,” McVay said. “There’s a lot of information for these young guys to observe, whether you’re on offense or defense, but I’ve been really pleased with his progression. … I think the more that he feels comfortable, the more reps, then the more he can just kind of play fast and not worry about thinking so much and I think you’re starting to see that show itself out here.”
—Without Cam Akers, the Rams are elevating Darrell Henderson Jr. to the No. 1 offense, but kept Xavier Jones, Robert Calais and Jake Funk in the mix for snaps Thursday. Henderson, a third-year back from Memphis, is the team’s most-established runner remaining after Akers’ season-ending Achilles injury. McVay said Henderson will take a “good workload” with the top offense, but how exactly that shakes out will be a “evolving conversation as we get closer to the regular season.”
—Jalen Ramsey changed his jersey to No. 5 but said he initially was eyeing No. 2. The cornerback said he wanted No. 2 because he wanted to be “second in life” and put others ahead of him. But receiver Robert Woods wanted that number, which is what the L.A. native wore while starring at Gardena Serra High and USC. Staying true to his reason for choosing No. 2, Ramsey forfeited the number and chose No. 5.
Matthew Stafford said he felt like a kid again on impressive first day at Rams camp
“It’s brand new,” said Stafford, 33, acquired in January from Detroit in a deal that sent the Lions two first-round picks, a third-rounder and quarterback Jared Goff. “Parts of the day, parts of me feel like a rookie. I’m walking around trying to learn everybody’s name, who knows what and all that kind of stuff. Trying to perform at a high level is a challenge, but I’m loving it.”
He threw some flawless spirals, including a deep ball to DeSean Jackson for a touchdown that had the spectators in the UC Irvine bleachers erupting in cheers.
“It was awesome,” he said of playing in front of fans. “We kind of missed out on this last year. The first 11 years of my career, some version of this is what it felt like. It kind of helped us get through practice to be honest with you. The first day’s easy for us because we love coming out here and doing it. But as camp goes on, when we get these fans out here cheering us on, it really helps us out.”
Coach Sean McVay said Stafford looks comfortable already.
“There’s a lot of little nuances and we’re still getting things figured out on Day 1,” McVay said. “But he definitely has great command, we could all feel that.”
—Cornerback Dont’e Deayon had a pretty leaping interception of a Stafford pass intended for Jackson. It was a jump-ball throw that Deayon won before falling backward and holding on to the ball. For Jackson, it looked as if an early-camp ball, meaning a pass he would have fought much harder for had it been in a game or if his roster spot were in question.
—Second-year safety Terrell Burgess, whose impressive rookie season was cut short by a broken ankle in Week 7, made some splashy plays on the first day of camp. He intercepted a John Wolford pass, and broke up a Stafford throw for Jackson who was running up the seam. After the latter, McVay came over to the defensive side to congratulate and praise the young defensive back. “Terrell’s a guy that’s really flashed,” McVay said. “I thought he was just hitting his stride before he got injured. Really confident in the player he can become, and today he started off the right way.”
—With Michael Brockers now in Detroit, defensive tackle A’Shawn Robinson has some big cleats to fill. Brockers was an excellent player in his right, but one of the aspects of his game that made him so valuable was the way he worked so seamlessly with Aaron Donald. That allowed Donald to cut loose and freelance without worrying about the rest of the defensive front breaking down. “He knew how to rush, how to play off me,” Donald said. “You play with somebody long enough, it’s yin and yang.”
—There wasn’t a large body of work to study, but McVay was impressed by the large body snapping the ball. Austin Corbett has moved over to center from right guard, replacing Austin Blythe, who signed a free-agent deal with Kansas City. “I was really encouraged with the communication, the command, the poise that he displayed,” McVay said. “I thought he was accurate in terms of some of the ‘gun snaps. It was a good first day for him. We had minimal full-speed reps, but it seemed like he did a nice job in those ones we did have.”
—Donald was making his first public comments since being falsely accused of assaulting a man outside a Pittsburgh-area club in April. Video surveillance footage showed Donald attempting to break up a fight that caused multiple injuries to accuser DeVincent Spriggs. Through his attorney, Spriggs later extended a formal apology to the Rams star. Asked about fallout from the incident, Donald said: “I was just training, man. I was just getting myself prepared for this upcoming season and wasn’t much worried about other stuff. Just working, spending time with my kids and my family. … Staying out of trouble.”
—First-year offensive line coach Kevin Carberry was not at practice, and Sean McVay later confirmed he has tested positive for COVID-19 despite being vaccinated. In that case, he’s eligible to return after two negative tests taken at least 24 hours apart.