Ray-Ray Armstrong taking on expanded role

EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Growing up in Sanford, Fla., St. Louis Rams linebacker Ray-Ray Armstrong couldn't help but admire the way then Miami safety Sean Taylor played football.

In an area where football doubles as a way of life and a way out, Armstrong patterned his game after Taylor's hard-hitting style. When doing a search for the photos of Taylor one day, Armstrong came across one bearing a nickname he immediately liked: the "Boom King."

Taylor was tragically murdered in 2007 but Armstrong wanted to find a way to honor him and embraced the nickname. For the uninitiated, Armstrong's Twitter handle is @boom_king26, which includes the nickname and Taylor's number.

"(He) was my favorite player growing up and my favorite player of all time, really, so it was on a picture of his I googled once so I just ran with it," Armstrong said Monday. "I tried to model myself after him."

As this version of the Boom King surveyed his kingdom in Monday morning's special-teams-only practice, he couldn't help but take a moment to think of how far he'd come. It was at a practice just like Monday's where Armstrong and fellow linebacker Daren Bates first left the indelible impressions on the coaching staff that would help unseat some of the special teams' core veterans. To see him was to see just how far he's come in a year.

"It makes a big difference," special-teams coach John Fassel said. "It feels like they are veteran guys but really it's only the second year. Last year, there were some veteran guys that got beat out on a day like today by Ray-Ray and Daren and Chase [Reynolds]. That's how they made the team. The rookies and new guys this year are trying to do to them what they did last year to the guys that didn't make the team."

The journey was even deeper for Armstrong.

Armstrong was once a highly regard college prospect at Miami, playing safety and quite literally following in Taylor's footsteps. But Armstrong ran into some trouble off the field and was kicked off the team in July 2012. He attempted to play at Faulkner University, an NAIA school in Montgomery, Ala., but was eventually ruled ineligible.

Instead of building on a strong sophomore season with the Hurricanes, Armstrong was out of the game completely. The Rams signed him after he went unselected in the 2013 NFL draft and promptly moved him to linebacker. It was a new position for the former safety but his path to the roster was clearly on special teams.

Fast forward to Monday afternoon and Armstrong is back for his second training camp in a much different spot than he was in 2013.

"It means a lot," Armstrong said. "Coming from a whole year off of football and coming back into it, I felt pretty good going out and playing. I didn’t lose too much. Now this year, the second year in a row competing at this level so I feel like -- I don’t want to say I’m there yet, not at all -- but just moving forward."

After a rough start to his rookie season in which Armstrong was prone to costly penalties, he settled in and made 12 tackles and helped the punt coverage team to an NFL record in limiting return yards. Fassel has even asked Armstrong and Bates to take on more of a leadership role on special teams.

"We were kind of the leaders on the field last year on core teams, along with Rodney McLeod, so to just move forward with that, he told us to take a little more responsibility and bring the other guys along," Armstrong said.

For his part, Armstrong is also taking aim at expanding his role beyond leadership. While the Rams seem mostly set with starters at linebacker in Alec Ogletree, James Laurinaitis and Jo-Lonn Dunbar, Armstrong is like any young player hoping to get more opportunities to help on defense.

Now that Armstrong has a year at linebacker to his name, those chances could arise on a more consistent basis.

“That would be the case with both Daren and Ray-Ray," coach Jeff Fisher said. "Both of them were core guys for us last year, big play guys. They’re both settling in and making big plays on the defense.”

While the different ways Armstrong can be used remain to be seen, he left little doubt about who rules the roost in special-teams practices with his performance Monday morning. He and Bates took the first rep of full contact as a means to set the tone and Armstrong was involved in the first scuffle of this camp, engaging linebacker Lawrence Wilson in a war of shoves and words.

"It’s all competing," Armstrong said. "Competition is football. Some tempers flare up here and there. We’ve got pads on, it’s the first day."

And nobody knows better than Armstrong what a difference one day can make.