Eric Henderson’s face lighted up as the tackling sled the Rams’ defensive line coach was standing on jolted backward.
The padded metal barricade was no match for rookie nose tackle Greg Gaines, giving way to 312 pounds of strength.
“I see you, Greg,” Henderson shouted, a devious grin crossing his face just minutes into the first practice of training camp Friday.
“Let’s go, newbie,” a nearby fan echoed, leaning over the railing in excitement, equally inspired by the flash of freakish force.
Gaines, a fourth-round pick from the University of Washington, is still adjusting to his new domain. His eyes were wide as he walked through a human tunnel and onto the field for the first time earlier that afternoon. Following a pair of veterans, he high-fived a line of fans and humbly gazed at thousands more ringing the pair of practice fields at UC Irvine.
“In college, it felt like all of our practices were super secret,” Gaines said. “Nobody was allowed.”
That’s not the case anymore. Instead, eyeballs have followed Gaines’ every move. His position, an all-important role between defensive tackle Aaron Donald, the defending two-time NFL defensive player of the year, and defensive end Michael Brockers, a seven-year veteran, is up for grabs. The run-stopping, road-blocking rookie is in contention to win the job.
Henderson said it’s still too early to be thinking about naming a starter. In scrimmage portions of camp, Gaines has been kept largely to second-team duty behind second-year pro Sebastian Joseph-Day. Tanzel Smart is also in the mix. Brockers has shifted into the nose tackle spot at times too.
Nonetheless, “it’s an incredible opportunity,” Gaines said. “Most guys, especially guys getting drafted in the fourth round, don’t have a chance to play at all, really.”
Ndamukong Suh filled the spot last year under a one-year contract and was not re-signed. His presence multiplied the star power in the defensive front but often added up to something less than a stout run defense. The Rams ranked 23rd in rushing yards allowed during the regular season, then let the New England Patriots average nearly five yards per carry in the Super Bowl. Although Suh collected 4½ sacks and 59 tackles, he sometimes seemed to cede his responsibilities up the middle.
In Gaines, the Rams see the potential for a new equation, hopeful his Mack Truck-like body can minimize opponents’ rushing attacks.
“A big guy, playing great run [technique], pushing the pocket great. He’s definitely showing up,” Donald said. “He’s getting better and grinding. Hopefully, he can get better and better.”
Gaines isn’t a perfect prospect. He doesn’t burst into the backfield. Leading up to the draft, some scouts questioned whether he had enough raw athleticism. In the Rams’ three-man front, he’ll be “shaded” between offensive lineman pre-snap more often than in college, where his focus was on blowing up blockers rather than blowing by them.
Though he collected only 10½ sacks during his four-year career at Washington, Gaines was productive in other ways. His powerful gap-plugging at the point of attack helped the Huskies rank in the top 15 nationally in rushing defense in 2017 and 2018.
“He was a huge piece to our success” in college, said safety Taylor Rapp, the Rams’ other rookie draft pick from Washington, selected in the second round.
“His talent and his work ethic, the way he works and the way he comes in, he’s already a true pro as a rookie.”
Gaines says he has been focused on lateral movement and penetration. During a drill in practice last Friday, he tumbled coming out of a hairpin turn. Henderson wants to see Gaines find more consistency with his technique too.
But four practices into camp, Gaines has continued building a good impression.
“Pleasing to see he’s picked up where he left off in OTAs,” Henderson said. “The good thing is, he’s so intelligent, you know when you put him out there he’ll get lined up and know where to go.”
Gaines guessed he might be headed to Los Angeles long before draft night. At the NFL scouting combine, he said the Rams hinted he’d be a fit, especially with Suh on his way out; the free agent eventually signed with Tampa Bay.
For the La Habra native, the perfect match worked both ways. Gaines has family throughout the Southland, from Newport Beach to Long Beach to Torrance.
An uncle has long been a fervent Rams fan — “He was super fired up” after the draft, Gaines said — following them during the team’s original stint in L.A. and sticking with them during their 22 years in St. Louis. Family members have packed a field-side tent in Irvine, loudly screaming Gaines’ name when he takes the field.
By the time the regular season starts, Gaines is hoping to give them more chances to cheer.
“It’s really cool,” Gaines said. “Just to have that opportunity and be able to compete and have something to be out here really working for.”