Rams Add Southern Flair to Backfield

Posted Aug 16, 2011

In the long running search for depth at running back behind starter Steven Jackson, the Rams explored plenty of options.

They carefully scouted and evaluated college prospects. They took a long, hard look at the free agent market. They brought in players with potential from other teams’ practice squads. And they even hoped to unearth a gem or two from the undrafted rookie pool.

Ultimately, when general manager Billy Devaney went looking for depth behind Jackson during this free-agent period, he simply looked to the deep south.

So it was that the Rams’ newest additions to the backfield have a decidedly southern flavor as they signed Cadillac Williams and Jerious Norwood, who both grew up in the south, played their college ball in the Southeastern Conference (at Auburn and Mississippi State, respectively) and spent the first part of their professional careers playing in the NFC South (with Tampa Bay and Atlanta, respectively).

Making them feel even more at home is a position coach (Sylvester Croom) who played his college ball at Alabama and was the first African American head coach in SEC history at Mississippi State.

“No doubt, that helps to have that familiarity,” Williams said. “You have Coach Croom, me and Jerious, to have a couple of southern SEC guys come and contribute is going to be good.”

Norwood goes back with Croom even further, having played for him when the pair was at Mississippi State. The Rams also signed guard Harvey Dahl from the Falcons and Devaney was in Atlanta when the team drafted Norwood.

“It’s always good to have guys you know,” Norwood said. “This being my first time in St. Louis, I don’t really know anybody. So with those guys around, it just makes me feel more comfortable.”

While Williams and Norwood come to St. Louis with solid NFL resumes that have seen them play a variety of roles for their teams, they are both well aware that with the Rams, their job is to complement Jackson and give him a breather on the rare occasions he needs one.

After all, Jackson is the Rams’ all time leading rusher and wears the label as one of the league’s few remaining workhorse backs as a badge of honor.

“I think we all know what Steven is for us,” coach Steve Spagnuolo said. “But it’s nice to have a couple guys there with some experience. And both Cadillac and Jerious Norwood are doing a pretty good job right now. Those two guys have a long way to go; everything is new for them, not just the offense but the way we do things. And it’s a new team, but I think they’ve done pretty good.”

Jackson’s role doesn’t figure to change much from the workhorse load he’s carried in recent years. It’s possible the Rams will be able to give him a blow more regularly than they have in the past and they certainly seem better equipped to handle any possible injuries that might strike Jackson.

For his part, Jackson welcomes the depth at the position and even invited his fellow running backs to his house for a barbecue on Sunday.

“It’s a definite positive, anytime you have depth at any position,” Jackson said. “Anytime you have depth where if a guy so happens to come up hurt, a guy needs a blow, you’ll have guys that’ll be able to fill into the positions, give a guy a break and that helps us overall.”

In the preseason opener, the Rams got a glimpse of the team’s newfound depth behind Jackson as he sat out the contest against Indianapolis.

Williams got the call to start in Jackson’s stead and looked as spry as ever, rushing for 40 yards on 11 carries with a 1-yard touchdown mixed in. Williams hit the holes, picked up blitzes and caught a pass, proving he’s the type of player who can fill a variety of roles for the Rams.

“I know my role coming here was to relieve Jack and whatever they need me to do whether it’s third down, special teams, I am just here to contribute and help this team win any way possible,” Williams said.

Once the fifth overall pick in the 2005 NFL Draft, Williams made his presence felt right away as he rushed for 1,178 yards and six touchdowns on his way to Offensive Rookie of the Year honors.

Since then, injuries have plagued Williams and he’s been unable to reach the expectations his rookie season produced. In 2007, he suffered a torn patellar tendon in his right knee that kept him inactive until there were only a handful of games left in the 2008 season.

Then, only a month after his return, Williams suffered a torn patellar tendon in his left knee.

It wasn’t until last season that Williams was able to make a full recovery and play in all 16 games for the first time in his career as he chipped in for the Bucs in a limited role similar to the one he’ll be asked to perform in St. Louis.

For the first time in a while, Williams says he feels back to full strength and ready to help.

“I feel great,” Williams said. “I know the two knee injuries still kind of linger in people’s minds but I feel great. I really do feel better than ever.”

As for falling in behind Jackson on the depth chart, Williams knows the pounding a feature back can take and says he hopes to just help Jackson whenever he can.

“You hear whispers and just knowing with him maybe needing a little help with the load,” Williams said. “He can definitely carry the load, he’s proven that but anything I can do help ease off him could go a long way.”

While Williams figures to provide help in terms of picking up some of the running slack and stepping up in blitz pickup on third down, Norwood brings a completely different element to the Rams’ backfield.

Norwood clocked a 40-yard dash in the 4.3 second range coming out of college, which landed him in Atlanta with the 79th overall pick in the 2006 NFL Draft.

That high-octane speed has helped Norwood post career averages of 5.3 yards per carry, 9.5 yards per catch and 25.5 yards per kick return.

Like Williams, Norwood has also struggled with knee injuries in recent seasons, including a torn right ACL that limited him to two games last season.

But also like Williams, Norwood says he feels healthy and has regained his speed. While he probably won’t get the touches Williams does and certainly not what Jackson gets, Norwood still figures to work into the offense as a pass catcher and potential home run hitter as a kickoff returner.

“That’s really my mentality,” Norwood said. “Every time I touch the ball, I try to do the most with it. I know my touches will be limited for one, so whenever I do get it, I try to make something big happen.”

Make no mistake, the running game will still focus on Jackson but it’s hard to deny that – assuming health – the Rams have their deepest and most versatile backfield in years.

“We are stacked up pretty good in that backfield,” Norwood said, a smile creeping across his face. “It’s only going to help the team out in the long run. Hopefully nobody gets hurt, everybody stays healthy and we finish the season strong.”