Tight Ends Hope to Provide Boost in Return

Posted Oct 14, 2010

For the better part of the past month, tight ends Billy Bajema and Michael Hoomanawanui have attended every meeting, every film session and every practice the Rams have had.

They’ve stayed sharp in their playbooks and invested mentally in their assignments. But when Sunday has come, they’ve been relegated to roles that they aren’t used to.

“During the games I was really just watching the tight ends more than any other position,” Bajema said. “But basically, I was just being a fan and watching the team and rooting for us to win. All during practice, you take mental reps and watch the film and all those things preparing like I am going to play even though I knew I wasn’t. But during the game I am just a fan wanting us to win the game.”

Bajema, sidelined by a knee injury, watched the Rams win a pair of games and lose one. Hoomanawanui, dealing with a high ankle sprain, watched those wins and a pair of losses in his four weeks out. 

Now, finally, these two key cogs to the Rams offense appear to be on the verge of a return. A return that couldn’t have come at a better time considering the hits the Rams have taken to their passing game in recent weeks.

An epidemic of injuries to the tight end position robbed the Rams of the most reliable and consistent Bajema and the bursting with potential rookie Hoomanawanui. The Rams made do with starter Daniel Fells, Darcy Johnson and rookie Fendi Onobun.

In recent weeks, the injury bug has shifted its bite to the receiving corps, taking top target Mark Clayton for the rest of the season with a torn patellar tendon in his knee.

In other words, having a healthy Bajema and Hoomanawanui back in the lineup could be integral to the continued improvement of the Rams’ passing game and the development of rookie quarterback Sam Bradford.

Of course, neither Bajema nor Hoomanawanui look at it as a situation where the tight ends have to pick up all of the slack simply because they’re healthy.

“It’s really on everyone: running backs, tight ends, wide receivers, it’s all of us,” Hoomanawanui said. “When you have a good player like Mark go down, everyone has to step their game up so I’ll be interested to see Sunday. I think everyone will do just that and we’ll be fine.”

Bajema echoed those sentiments.

“I think it’s just on everybody to move the ball down the field,” Bajema said. “I know as a position group and as a player, we want to do everything we can to make plays and help the offense run. I think it’s just on everybody to pick up whatever is left off and go score points and move the ball down the field and help us win.”
The steady Bajema opened the season as the Rams starter after a solid if unspectacular preseason in which he again proved to be a solid blocker with reliable hands. He caught three passes in the opener against Arizona and had one more for 13 yards against Oakland in week 2 before suffering a sprained ligament in his knee in that contest.

Bajema returned to practice on Wednesday though on a limited basis with a major wrap and brace on the knee. He said afterward that he felt good to be back on the field even though he didn’t quite take on a full work load.

Although he’s quiet and reserved, Bajema is one of the Rams most passionate about playing the game which made sitting out the past few weeks particularly upsetting.

“It’s been tough,” Bajema said. “The first two weeks I was out it was at least fun watching the team win two games but it’s always tough when you want to be out there and you don’t get to play the game you love to play. You want to be a part of helping the team win games and it’s tough when you are not out there. Fortunately we have a lot of games left and a lot of football to play.”

While coming back from injury and being patient might have been a little easier for a veteran such as Bajema, it was perhaps even more disappointing for Hoomanawanui after he put together an outstanding preseason.

As a fifth-round pick in April’s NFL Draft, Hoomanawanui was a revelation in the preseason, coming up with a pair of touchdown catches against New England and finding an immediate connection with Bradford.

But Hoomanawanui’s fast start was derailed only a handful of plays into the regular season as he suffered a high ankle sprain on his first NFL catch, an 8-yard gain for a first down in week 1 against Arizona.

It would have been easy for Hoomanawanui to get down but he says his support system helped him recover.

“Luckily with good family and friends and coaches and teammates, I have kept my head up and been able to get this thing right,” Hoomanawanui said. “I am still a couple weeks ahead of schedule. The trainers have done a great job and everyone around me keeping me up has been great too. I am excited to be back out there and try to help this team out.”

Indeed, Hoomanawanui is actually well ahead of schedule. High ankle sprains generally take about six weeks to regain full strength and flexibility. But Hoomanawanui returned to practice Wednesday and despite some soreness practice at full strength with a full load on Thursday.

While Bradford has established a good rapport with Clayton and Danny Amendola in the first five weeks, he acknowledged Wednesday that he’s excited about the prospect of reigniting the hookup he had with Hoomanawanui in the preseason.

“Having him back this week, I think it’s definitely going to be something to help our offense,” Bradford said. “I felt like me and Mike had developed some chemistry early on in the preseason, and to lose him was obviously unfortunate. But he’s worked hard to get himself back to where he is now, so we’re just going to have to spend some time at practice making sure we’re still on the same page.”

Barring any setbacks, the Rams will have their full complement of tight ends for the first time since the opener.

It remains to be seen how involved they’ll be in the game plan but if nothing else, it sure beats watching from a luxury box.

“We sit next to each other up in the box and when they break the huddle, we know the formations, we know the plays so the only thing is we are not out there,” Hoomanawanui said. “We are kind of like coaches up in the box. It’s tough not being out there to help them but we’re ready to get back on track.”