Ogbonnia Okoronkwo is back from injury and hoping to make Rams’ linebackers crew
Preseason games afford Rams rookies opportunities to show coaches and teammates they are worthy of roster spots — and possible roles in the Sept. 8 opener against the Carolina Panthers.
One member of last year’s draft class also is finally getting his chance.
Linebacker Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, a fifth-round draft pick in 2018 out of Oklahoma, made his pro debut Saturday in the 14-10 loss to the Dallas Cowboys. He is looking forward to the next game, Saturday against the Denver Broncos at the Coliseum.
Okoronkwo suffered a foot injury during offseason workouts last year and was sidelined nearly the entire season while recovering from surgery. He was added to the active roster in November but was not active for any games.
During this offseason and training camp, Okoronkwo was slowed by hamstring problems that kept him out of the preseason opener against the Oakland Raiders.
Okoronkwo came off the bench against the Cowboys — his first game action since the Jan. 1, 2018 Rose Bowl against Georgia in a College Football Playoff semifinal — and made his presence felt in 33 snaps on defense and 10 on special teams. Okoronkwo leaped and deflected a pass, forced offensive linemen into two holding penalties and made a tackle.
The Rams fell 14-10 to the Cowboys in a preseason game in Honolulu, but third-round pick Darrell Henderson was in the thick of things.
“It’s been a long time,” he said after the game, “so it feels good to play football again.”
Okoronkwo is part of an outside linebacker group that includes Clay Matthews, Dante Fowler, Samson Ebukam, the injured Justin Lawler, Trevon Young and undrafted free agent Natrez Patrick. The game against the Cowboys was the first time Okoronkwo demonstrated the skills that helped him amass 20 sacks in college.
“You see some of the flashes of why we liked him so much, why he was such a productive player at Oklahoma,” coach Sean McVay said.
Okoronkwo said it was frustrating to be slowed by injuries, but the Rams training staff, coaches and teammates helped him endure.
“Everybody’s just very uplifting, very positive, so it’s very easy to keep your head above water when you’re going through something like that,” he said.
The game against the Broncos and an Aug. 29 game against the Houston Texans are the final opportunities for players to make their cases for spots for on the 53-man roster.
Bryce Hager stood out during the Rams’ preseason loss to the Cowboys, and Micah Kiser’s injury could give the linebacker a chance to become a starter.
“You’re just kind of finding those guys that work hard, that continue to make it difficult for us to say, ‘Hey, we’ve got to find ways to get this guy on the field,’ or they’ve got to carve out a role for themselves,” McVay said.
A new challenge
In the wake of controversy after officials failed to call obvious pass interference against Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman in the NFL championship game win over the New Orleans Saints, the NFL adopted a rule that allows coaches to challenge noncalls. McVay challenged once in the preseason opener and twice against the Cowboys.
Upon review, officials upheld the noncalls on McVay’s first two challenges. But a noncall late in the game against the Cowboys was reversed and the Cowboys were penalized for pass interference.
“I don’t want anybody to think that I’m totally going crazy,” McVay said. “Those are more educational things than anything else, and we’re just using these opportunities to really gain that knowledge so then we can develop a plan that’s smart for our team when these games count.”
McVay is holding out starters from preseason games to avoid injuries, but punter Johnny Hekker, kicker Greg Zuerlein and long-snapper Jake McQuaide have participated to keep their skills sharp.
“All of what we do is about repetition and building consistency, so for us to get out there and get the work in with the guys that are here was awesome,” Hekker said after the game against the Cowboys.
Zuerlein kicked a 36-yard field goal against the Raiders. He converted a 29-yard kick against the Cowboys but missed a 56-yard attempt. Hekker has averaged 47.9 yards for eight kicks. A 49-yard punt against the Cowboys bounced out of bounds at the three-yard line.
“The ball showed me some good Aloha spirit on that one,” Hekker said.
Linebacker Micah Kiser is scheduled to have surgery Tuesday for a left pectoral injury. ... The Rams were off Monday. They resume practice Tuesday.
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