Rams' young linebacking corps asked to grow up quickly in light of Dunbar's release

News-DemocratSeptember 4, 2013 

— The youth movement that the St. Louis Rams have undergone is especially evident at linebacker.

Four of the six linebackers currently on the Rams' roster are rookies.

Middle linebacker James Laurainaitis will have 12-year NFL veteran Will Witherspoon on one side and rookie Alec Ogletree on the other.

The backups are rookies Ray Ray Armstrong, Daren Bates and Jonathan Stewart.

"With the exception of Will Witherspoon, who is 48 years old (actually 32), our oldest guys are in their sixth or seventh years," Laurinaitis, who is entering his fifth season in the NFL, said of the Rams' youthful roster. "You feel older, but I think coach put it best the other day. He said it's not an excuse by any means. Theses guys have all played a lot of football in their lives."

The Rams got younger at linebacker after releasing veteran Jo-Lonn Dunbar on Tuesday rather than waiting for him to serve a four-game suspension.

Dunbar, the Rams' second-leading tackler last season, was suspended for the first four games this season for violating the NFL policy on performance-enhancing drugs.

"We thought it was in the best interest of the organization right now to make that move, and we'll just address things down the road, I guess," Rams coach Jeff Fisher said.

Fisher said there was no other incidents or problems that contributed to Dunbar's release.

"There was nothing, no," Fisher said. "He and I discussed it, we shared it with you guys, we got it put behind us with the club and his teammates. There were no other issues. It was just a decision we had to make."

Fisher didn't rule out the possibility that the Rams could re-sign Dunbar later this season.

"Of course, there's a good possibility," Fisher said. "Anything's possible."

Witherspoon, who is serving his second stint with the Rams having played in the Gatway City from 2006 until being traded to the Philadelphia Eagles late in the 2009 season, will fill Dunbar's starting spot.

Witherspoon had more than 100 tackles in seven out of eight seasons from 2003 through 2007, but he had only 48 tackles in 14 games (five starts) last season for the Tennessee Titans.

"'Spoon's done a great job since he's been here," Fisher said. "He's been a consistent, productive player every place he's been. Obviously, we brought Will in here with the knowledge that Jo-Lonn was not going to be available."

The 6-foot-2, 242-poundOgletree, the second of the Rams' two first-round picks (30th overall selection) in the 2013 NFL draft, had 111 tackles and three sacks last year as a junior at Georgia.

"I'm very confident in what 'Tree' can do," Laurinaitis said. "Alec is a very quiet kid, but he knows a lot about football and he works at it.

"Every rookie is going to have things that they can improve on. I look back on my rookie Week 1 compared to my rookie Week 16, and you almost laugh at the way you played early on and you wonder why sometimes that the coaches stuck with you because you make so many young mistakes. He's going to have some rookie mistakes. The thing about the NFL is you have to be able to learn from them and don't be a repeat offender."

Ogletree has shown the ability to learn from his mistakes. He rebounded from a bad outing in Week 2 of the preseason against the Green Bay Packers to register six tackles, an interception, two passes defended, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and a touchdown against the Denver Broncos.

"He's a football player," Rams cornerback Cortland Finnegan said. "You saw in the Denver game on the big stage, he showed up. If he continues that kind of play, I think it helps us tremendously.''

Ogletree has a tattoo of the NFL emblem with numbers 4-26-13 representing the day he was drafted on his right shoulder. He'll get to validate that tattoo when he makes his NFL debut this Sunday in the Rams' season opener against the Arizona Cardinals.

"I'm just looking to go out there and play fast and do my job and have fun out there," Ogletree said.

Ogletree admitted that making the adjustment from college to the NFL isn't easy.

"Given that it was new a scheme for me, it definitely took me more time than some of the other guys to pick up on it," Ogletree. "I've really worked hard each and every day with learning this scheme, and right now I feel pretty good about what we need to do."

Laurinaitis said he was looking forward to seeing what Ogletree could do in a regular-season game.

"Obviously, his talent and athletic ability is something that is going to help us," Laurinaitis said. "I am glad to be playing beside him. I think he has a bright future in this league."

Contact reporter Steve Korte at skorte@bnd.com or 239-2522.

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