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Rams Practice notes: Donnie Avery returns, is still Donnie Avery

Spagnuolo watches calmly as bodies crunch together in front of him.

Rain threatened to make an appearance at Rams practice today, but never showed up. Donnie Avery did make an appearance at practice, but did he “show up?” Not yet, no.

Avery’s return to the field seems to be the big story, and he caught a pass from Bradford (while running with a second-team offense) in a series of route-running drills right in front me as I walked in to Rams Camp. But other than that undefended grab, I saw precious few other opportunities thrown his way. Three plays stand out, though:

Being totally ignored in an obvious red zone mismatch. The Rams went four wide in an 11 on 11 session from fifteen yards out, with Avery and TE Guidugli lined up to Feeley’s right. But Guidugli lined up wide, giving the slot position (and coverage by Ben Leber, the 2nd team outside linebacker) to Avery. Avery sped past Giudugli on a bee-line for the back of the end zone, but Feeley never even saw the mismatch, throwing incomplete into double coverage on the left side. 

Being underthrown on the edge. If Avery is going to make a splash, he’s going to have to find his way to some first team reps. Feeley just doesn’t have the gun to throw the 15-yard out that Avery was running, making for an easy interception by Darian Stewart.

Finally catching a ball in scrimmage, and getting sarcastically congratulated. “Is that Donnie Avery’s first catch of the entire camp?” asked a fan in front of me on the hill, nearly two hours into practice, after a nice catch on a deep ball, thrown by Thaddeus Lewis I believe. He faces not only an uphill battle against the competition on the roster, but against the general perception among fans now that have grown tired of waiting for his unfulfilled promise.

More updates and observations:

On offense: Can you say “Touchdown Rams?”

The Rams came down and worked in our end zone for a god long time on red zone drills, and the Josh McDaniels’ philosophy of “stressing the defense” seemed intent on tearing apart the Rams’ safeties. Kendricks caught a ball and literally walked into the right corner of the end zone with a suspicious absence of blue shirts around him. “Who had Kendricks?” was the question of the moment, and James Laurinaitis’ telling look at Craig Dahl provided the answer. 

One play later, Bajema is similarly unencumbered toward the opposite corner of the end zone, with Quintin Mikell walking sheepishly back to  the defensive huddle. Bradford was absolutely deadly in this drill, throwing only one or two balls out of ten that didn’t go for a score. Danny Amendola even ran a route that didn’t immediately break east-west, optioning toward the back of the end zone and making an easy grab for six imaginary points. 

One fan near me had the total count on the day at twenty touchdowns scored today, which even for practice, even for a practice in shorts and shells, seems pretty good. 

leber-in-drills

On defense: Leber climbs the ranks, Al Harris is our preferred nickel option.

Ben Leber appears to have worked his way onto the second team, prompting additional discussion about the team’s logjam at linebacker. With Bryan Kehl still starting at the weakside linebacker, and Na’il Diggs still your #1 man on the strong side, Leber’s promotion means that fellow free agent signee Zac Diles has been relegated to third team work.

The good news here is that Leber should have a very visible workload this weekend against Tennessee. The question marks surround Kehl, though, who is having a good camp (Patty at the Pigskin Arch reported two nice Kehl interceptions in yesterday’s practice) but seemed out of his depth as a starter late last year. The intelligentsia on the hill behind the end zone expressed concern that he might follow Larry Grant’s path, overachieving his way through camp to a starting job that would be quickly lost when exposed to regular season competition.

Meanwhile, Justin King’s number 21 continues to be a target for the men in the red jerseys. Despite Spagnuolo’s surprising vote of confidence in King before the preseason opener, he seems to be the weaker link in nickel coverage. He has outstanding makeup speed, but still seems to lack the comfort to bump and run and finish plays with bigger, more physical receivers – something the Rams have no shortage of this year. 

Veteran Al Harris and muscular rookie Dionte Dinkins seem naturally more comfortable with the jousting match that is a necessary part of route running, with Harris having that preternatural nose for the football. He made a very nice adjustment on a ball for an interception today, and will hopefully be a big part of an improved Rams secondary on passing downs.

donnie jones, unknown superstar

Special Teams: Donnie Jones is a monster, and Mardy Gilyard continues to make noise

The Rams practiced punt coverage in one twenty-minute segment today, but instead of using the Jugs machine, Donnie Jones took something like twenty snaps and boomed twenty punts in succession, getting impossible hangtime on each one. 

A Rams Camp resident who calls himself “the coach” — and is often heard calling out players by their numbers and proclaiming “I’m watching you!” — was counting Mississippis as Jones skied ball after ball. I think he got to five every time. As he kicked, a rotation of hungry players from presumptive first team wideout Brandon Gibson to undrafted cornerback hopeful Tim Atchison raced down the field to try and down the punt inside the ten yard line. Atchison had the play of the session, scooting a ball out of bounds at the two. 

Meanwhile, Mardy Gilyard found himself on the wrong side of yet another coach, earning a brief jawing from Derious Swinton, a quality control coach on special teams who was busy barking out names and lining players up. Gilyard earned his wrath by stutter-stepping and taking an inside route to the punt returner, both no-nos in Swinton’s book.

In general, though, Gilyard appears to be making a positive impression on coaches with his play, with the positives beginning to outweigh some still noticeable gaffes (like putting his first punt return opportunity on the turf on Saturday). His demeanor seems much looser than it was at this time a year ago, when he was struggling through a wrist injury that would dog him all season long. He may still be a long shot, but has earned some legitimate buzz toward his attempt to make the final six (or seven) wideouts.

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