EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Although nobody came out and said it outright Wednesday, including Will Witherspoon himself, it’s the 12th-year veteran that seems most likely to replace suspended starter Jo-Lonn Dunbar in the Rams’ lineup.
Coach Jeff Fisher did not comment on Dunbar’s suspension for violation of the league’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs, but given the team’s lack of experience behind Dunbar, Witherspoon is the most logical option to fill the void.
Following a special-teams practice Wednesday afternoon, Witherspoon did speak to the media about his potential new role.
“I don’t make those assumptions and those are decisions way out of my pay grade,” Witherspoon said, laughing.
Considering that Witherspoon is the only backup linebacker on the depth chart with any meaningful playing experience in the league, he’s the guy many expect to start on the right side opposite Alec Ogletree. Witherspoon has started 150 games and played in 173 in his 11-year career.
Josh Hull, who is entering his fourth year, is the only other linebacker to make a start in the NFL and he has just one to his credit. Second-year LB Jabara Williams has appeared in seven games with no starts. The four other linebackers on the depth chart are undrafted rookies.
“With everything that is going on, it really comes down to the simple fact that we’ve all got to step up so no matter where you are asked to do it, what you are asked to do, we’ve all got to pick up our game, we’ve all got to make sure that we fill that hole when it happens,” Witherspoon said. “If I’m asked to step in and start, that’s what I’ll do. And if not, then I’m still going to be the same veteran leader that I’ve always wanted to be.”
The Rams signed Witherspoon on July 22, just three days before the veterans were to report for training camp. That he was brought in more than three weeks ago was not a coincidence given the nature of how suspension information flows in the NFL.
More often than not, teams are informed of suspensions long before they become public. Further, players often go through an appeals process should they opt to go that route before a suspension is announced.
This case was no different, as the Rams knew Dunbar’s suspension was coming before signing Witherspoon.
The Rams needed some veteran depth at linebacker anyway and they opted to add someone who is familiar with the defense and the franchise in Witherspoon.
Witherspoon played for Fisher when the two were in Tennessee in 2010. There, Witherspoon started all 16 games on the outside, finishing with 99 tackles and a pair of interceptions.
Before his time with the Titans, Witherspoon played for the Rams from 2006-09.
Upon arrival in St. Louis, Witherspoon said his familiarity with the defense has made for an easy transition though some of the terminology, positioning and the way certain calls are played out have changed.
“What’s required of me, that’s what I’m willing to do,” Witherspoon said. “Step in. I’m very familiar with the defense in a lot of its aspects and some of the little nuances and changes that have happened, those are things that are readily adaptable.”
In the Rams’ defensive scheme the outside linebacker positions are essentially interchangeable, so the loss of Dunbar likely won’t require any more shuffling than simply bumping someone up the depth chart to take his place.
Witherspoon has played all three linebacker positions at various points in his career, but he's played outside exclusively since his first stint with the Rams in 2008.
“Left and right side really doesn’t make that big of a difference to you,” Witherspoon said. “We’ll just take everything in stride and keep going with it.”
Witherspoon’s 33rd birthday is Sunday but he’s remained productive in recent seasons though his role was diminished for the first time in 2012 with the Titans.
For the first time since his rookie season with Carolina in 2002, Witherspoon didn’t start the majority of his team’s games last year. He played in 14 with five starts in posting 47 tackles, a sack and an interception.
Despite the opportunity that looms, Witherspoon said he feels bad for Dunbar regardless of the circumstances of the suspension.
“You always feel bad any time a guy is going to miss any particular part of the season, no matter what,” Witherspoon said. “But we are all going to support him and say, ‘Hey, as soon as you get back, let’s get back to rolling and going forward with what we know we can do.’”