EARTH CITY, Mo. -- As soon as St. Louis Rams cornerback E.J. Gaines departed an early training camp practice with a foot injury, a burgeoning competition for the starting job opposite Janoris Jenkins came to a screeching halt.
Gaines and Trumaine Johnson were expected to battle it out for the starting job with Gaines considered the favorite to win out. But that competition never materialized as Gaines left that practice. When coach Jeff Fisher revealed over the weekend that Gaines would not return this year after surgery on his foot, it became clear that the Rams now expect Johnson to step in and keep the defense rolling.
Fisher acknowledged that Gaines' loss is a blow for the defense, but he believes in the depth the team has built at the position.
“To come in as a sixth-round pick and come in because of injury and keep the job, I thought it was a very impressive effort for him," Fisher said. "We were counting on him. We were going to create competition between Trumaine and [Gaines] this year to see what happened and it’s just unfortunate and just a part of it. He’ll be back. He’ll be back 100 percent. He’s just not going to return this year. Tru is off to a great start. Marcus [Roberson] is playing well and Lamarcus [Joyner] also is doing a good job for us there and Jenks [Janoris Jenkins] is Jenks. We’ve got a good group and unfortunately we’re down one.”
For Johnson, this isn't so much a chance to win a job as it is to reclaim the one he lost to injury a year ago. He looked poised to join fellow 2012 draftee Jenkins in the starting lineup last year before suffering a knee injury in the third preseason game against Cleveland. That injury didn't end his season, but it put him on the sidelines for the first seven games.
By the time Johnson was healthy enough to contribute, Gaines had a firm grasp on the job that was supposed to be Johnson's. Johnson still played a lot, coming in for nickel situations with Gaines moving into the slot for most of the second half of the season. He finished with 36 tackles, three interceptions and two pass breakups.
Instead of spending his time away from the team in his home state of California as he'd traditionally done, Johnson spent a big chunk of the offseason in St. Louis. According to Fisher, Johnson is one of a number of Rams who returned for training camp in the best shape of his career.
It paid immediate dividends in the first preseason game as Johnson came up with an interception and a pass breakup in just two drives worth of snaps.
“It all goes back to what he’s done this offseason," Fisher said. "He was there every day, he’s worked, he’s taken care of his body and he’s determined. If you get in that third and fourth year and play like he has, you should start making those plays when you have that kind of ability.”
The Rams are counting on him to keep it up when the real games start on Sept. 13.