For the first three years of his college career, Rams defensive tackle Matt Conrath played one of the least glamorous positions the game has to offer, a position where it can be particularly difficult to get noticed by NFL teams.
Conrath was a defensive end in a 3-4 system at Virginia, a spot more commonly known as a 5-technique, whose main responsibility was to take on blockers, allow the linebackers to run free to the ball and every once in a while generate some pass rush.
It was the same job once held down by current Ram and former Cavalier
When Virginia changed coaching staffs two seasons ago, the system changed to a more common base 4-3 scheme. And with it, Conrath’s NFL profile changed as well.
While the 6’7, 290-pound Conrath didn’t get drafted last April, he generated plenty of interest from NFL teams. The opportunity in St. Louis to continue in a 4-3 scheme and to follow in the footsteps of Long was too tough to pass up.
“I had a few teams come after me,” Conrath said. “This just seemed like a good fit. We were running a 4-3 similar to this style at Virginia and I had talked to (defensive line) coach (Mike) Waufle over the phone a few times and he seemed like a great guy who knew what he was talking about and it just kind of worked out.”
The change to a three-technique tackle didn’t figure to be an easy one for Conrath when he was first asked to do it and it certainly didn’t seem to be one that would help punch his ticket to the NFL.
At Conrath’s height, it can be difficult to get low and establish pad level against guards and centers normally at least three or four inches smaller than him. But Conrath settled into a groove and posted a senior season that ended with first-team All Atlantic Coast Conference honors.
Along the way, Conrath racked up 66 tackles (third among ACC defensive linemen), three sacks, 12 tackles for loss and even blocked three field goals. In an upset win against Georgia Tech, he was particularly dominant with nine tackles and a blocked kick.
Despite the breakout performance, Conrath was still considered a sixth or seventh-round pick at best. He didn’t allow that to bother him, though, and spent the final day of the draft with his family at a golf course near their Oak Lawn, Ill. home.
“I tried to get my mind off it and just focus on something else,” Conrath said.
When his name wasn’t called, Conrath took the opportunity to evaluate his options and decided ultimately that St. Louis was the place he wanted to be.
“It was great to have Chris Long here,” Conrath said. “I played with him at Virginia and it just so happened to work out we ended up in the same spot. I just came in tried to learn everything with Coach Waufle and he’s a great teacher so it made a pretty easy transition coming in.”
Conrath got his introduction to the NFL in the spring, participating in the team’s OTAs and minicamps. Although the Rams weren’t in pads during that time, he made a strong initial impression on the coaching staff with his willingness to do whatever is asked as well as the athletic ability he has relative to his size.
Attaching himself to Long and Waufle, Conrath caught on quickly and brought maximum effort to every snap of every practice.
“I am just trying to fly around and do everything that is asked of me,” Conrath said. “The things Coach Waufle says just make sense and they translate out on to the football field. The drills we do, you can see it translate on film and you know what he’s telling you makes sense.”
Upon departing for the break between the offseason program and the start of training camp, Conrath returned to Charlottesville to train with Virginia strength coach Evan Marcus. Long joined Conrath and the group worked out every day together.
The work Conrath did in the spring has apparently helped pay off early in training camp. While it’s way too early to make any definitive statements about how the depth chart will ultimately look inside, Conrath’s presence working with the second unit and even occasionally as part of the rotation with the first unit is noticeable.
Whatever Conrath has done so far has clearly caught the attention of the coaching staff. Not that the rookie from Virginia is focused on anything but finding ways to improve every day especially as a pass rusher.
“I just go out there every day and try to work as hard as I can and run around and they seem to like what I’ve been doing so I just have to keep working at it every day,” Conrath said.
REPLACEMENT REFS IN TOWN: With the scrimmage a day away and the Rams now in full pads, the need for a little bit of on field supervision is now evident. As such, the Rams welcomed a group of officials to town in time for their Thursday evening practice.
Of course, there’s a bit of a twist this year as the officials are replacements while the league works out a deal with the normal referees. That group worked Friday’s practice and will handle Saturday’s scrimmage as well.
“Yes officials will typically come out for three days,” coach Jeff Fisher said. “They’ll do a presentation on the rule changes and then they usually work practice for three days. So they’ll be with us Friday and Saturday. It’s really good for them. This group’s been working really hard in clinics and trying to get caught up. I visited with them a little bit inside and it’s a two way street. It helps us and it helps them.”
SAFFOLD WORKING WAY BACK: Left tackle
Although Saffold has taken a little time to get re-acclimated and has been tested early and often by end
“The injury’s completely behind him,” Fisher said. “He’s strong. He’s really worked hard this offseason, with his feet, his balance and his technique and the injury’s behind and he’s doing just fine. He’s got a couple pretty good rushers out there to work against every day.”
GOVERNOR STOPS IN: Missouri Governor Jay Nixon stopped by with his entourage on Friday to check out the team and greet Fisher. The two spent some time talking after practice but the nature of the conversation was "confidential," Fisher joked.
Nixon is known for his affinity for football and asked about receiver
"He's extremely knowledegeable," Fisher said. "He knew more about some of the players on this team than I did."
WATKINS BACK IN TEAM: Rookie guard
“He practiced today," Fisher said. "He's got a ways to go. He's been behind but he'll get caught up. He's now in a position where he can get caught up."