EARTH CITY, Mo. -- At a recent St. Louis Rams special-teams practice, coach John Fassel lined his charges up for a drill meant to test their will, if not their ability, to cover a punt.
The drill set up with a gunner on each side of punter Johnny Hekker (and the JUGS machine) and two blockers lined up in front of him. It's a common sight on Sundays for gunners to face double-teams, but there were no other players on the field and no lines blocking.
While Fassel is going through the process of figuring out who fits where on his special-teams units, he's looking for more than natural speed and ability. He's looking to see who wants it the most.
After all, the greatest trait you can have on special teams is that little bit of crazy where you can still control it but it works to your advantage.
“We let a few things go just because we want it to be physical and see whose willing to kind of fight," Fassel said.
So it was that rookie defensive back Lamarcus Joyner lined up across from the duo Rams teammates have labeled the "Miami Heat," cornerback Brandon McGee and receiver Stedman Bailey. McGee and Bailey hail from the Miami area and McGee played his college ball for the Hurricanes.
Presumably, the nickname serves as a complement referring to the LeBron James-led version that went to four straight NBA Finals and won two rather than the post-LeBron group that now pays Chris Bosh obscene amounts of money.
As the ball went soaring toward a returner, Joyner was rudely greeted by Bailey and McGee, neither of whom cuts an imposing figure, but both of whom are more than willing to mix it up. Joyner fought off the block and made it about 7 yards before he was hit again. He kept moving and advanced another 15 yards or so before McGee got in a good lick. Joyner again managed to stay on his feet and keep moving.
Joyner didn't make any sort of spectacular play and in a game, he would likely have been wiped out of the play. But that wasn't the point.
"I had to be a man," Joyner said. "They threw me in the fire early but I enjoyed it. I love football; it’s a physical game and I love getting dirty. Just don’t get destroyed. Just show some toughness because the coaches already know what those guys are capable of, so you’ve just got to fight."
That, in essence, is precisely what Fassel is looking for. Taking it further, it's what the entire coaching staff is looking for from the 5-foot-8, 182-pound rookie out of Florida State. It's why the Rams traded up for Joyner in the second round of May's draft.
“[Joyner is] what we saw on film, a little scrappy, tough, feisty guy," Fassel said. "I mean, to me, that’s who we want on special teams -- a guy that’s tough, not a real big guy, but he’s going to fight.”
That attitude hasn't been contained to Joyner's work on special teams. As expected, Joyner is also getting plenty of work on defense, even working with the first team as the nickelback with Trumaine Johnson nursing an unknown injury.
Joyner has made the most of those reps, earning praise from receiver Kenny Britt for his feisty approach and coming up with some strong moments in team drills. He had an interception in consecutive practices earlier in the week and agitated wideout Brian Quick when he came over the top to breakup a pass in 11-on-11 Sunday afternoon.
While Johnson and Janoris Jenkins project as the starting outside corners, Joyner is likely to continue pushing McGee as the primary nickelback. He worked some at safety during the spring but that was because the Rams had a handful of safeties coming back from injury.
It would almost be a surprise if he doesn't win the nickel job at this point. And now that he's able to focus more exclusively on that job, he should only continue to improve.
"I’ve been focusing more on nickel, trying to focus on the primary position," Joyner said. "Then later on in my career here, start thinking about (safety). Now it’s nickel and it’s going pretty well."