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Rams' Hill is an old hand at learning new system

2014-08-06T01:15:00Z 2015-03-10T17:50:19Z Rams' Hill is an old hand at learning new systemBy Jim Thomas jthomas@post-dispatch.com 314-340-8197 stltoday.com

Rams backup quarterback Shaun Hill already has 12 NFL seasons under his belt. So no, this isn’t the first time he’s had to learn a new playbook.

Granted, he was in the same system for four straight seasons in Detroit before signing a one-year, $1.75 million free-agent deal with the Rams in March.

“Before that I had five coordinators in five years,” Hill said. “So I do have experience with learning playbooks.”

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Five coordinators in five years? That even has starter Sam Bradford beat.

“Yeah,” Hill said, laughing. “It’s something we can talk about.”

The learning process continues for Hill, but he has been a quick study at age 34.

“Shaun’s got a good feel for what we’re doing,” coach Jeff Fisher said. “Got a good sense for timing, can get the ball out. So we expect him to do well. He traditionally has played very well in the preseason games over the last few years, so we expect him to do so.”

Hill has a little bit of history with Rams quarterbacks coach Frank Cignetti; they were in San Francisco together in 2007. That made the transition to a new offensive system easier in the spring and during the OTA period in June.

If Hill was wondering about a certain play call, Cignetti would mention what it was called in San Francisco. That accelerated the learning process.

“I would translate our plays into the old (49ers) terminology,” Cignetti said. “For instance, one of our plays in the old system might be ‘078’ — so when you teach him the concept, I’d say, ‘Hey, that was 078’ back in San Francisco.’ So it would make the transition a little easier for him conceptually.”

With Bradford expected to sit out Friday’s preseason opener against visiting New Orleans, Hill figures to get the start against the Saints in the Edward Jones Dome.

Compared with Kellen Clemens, last year’s backup, Hill has better arm strength and better accuracy. Whether he has Clemens’ leadership ability and on-field energy remains to be seen.

“He’s a veteran, he’s a pro,” Cignetti said. “He’s been well-coached. He’s been around some of the best coaches to coach this game. He brings a lot of experience to the group, to the position.

“It’s always nice to have guys that can see the other side of the ball and see what’s happening. Shaun can still read and react very quickly.”

Preseason or not, Hill says he still gets that same feeling of excitement on game day.

“Absolutely,” Hill said. “There’s butterflies every time you strap ’em on, and hopefully that’ll never change. If it does, then maybe it’s time to hang ’em up.”

Hill isn’t ready to do that — not yet anyway. He was brought here to replace Clemens, who signed with San Diego via free agency, as the Rams’ top backup behind Bradford.

Only Fisher knows for sure, but the sense at training camp is that the Rams will keep three quarterbacks on the 53-man roster after what happened last season, when the team scrambled in late October to find backup help following Bradford’s knee injury.

There are four quarterbacks in camp, and Hill, rookie Garrett Gilbert and holdover Austin Davis will be competing for playing time and ultimately roster spots with the start of preseason play.

A sixth-round draft pick in May out of SMU, Gilbert played in the pass-happy system of June Jones. That meant no snaps under center and or two-back sets.

“We want to run the ball (in St. Louis), whereas Coach Jones did not want to run the ball,” Gilbert said. “It’s been a while since I’ve been under center.”

How long?

“Maybe sixth grade or something like that,” Gilbert said. “We put in the shotgun in middle school. So yeah, it’s been a while.”

That would be Lake Travis Middle School in Austin, Texas.

Gilbert, 6-4, 221, appears to have adjusted to dropback passing pretty quickly, and has at least a rudimentary knowledge of the playbook.

“There’s still a lot of learning going on,” Gilbert said. “I feel like each and every day I go out with a couple of things I’d like to try and get better on. The main goal for me is there’s gonna be mistakes — I think that’s gonna be how it is for all rookies — but to try not to repeat any mistakes.”

Even before he sees his first game action against the Saints, Gilbert already can tell on the practice field that the windows are a little bit smaller in the NFL when it comes to throwing the ball open receivers. And even with no contact allowed on QBs in practice, the pass rushers get in your face a little quicker.

“Garrett, he has the physical measurables. He has the arm strength,” Cignetti said. “He’s very smart. He can take the knowledge from the classroom to the field. So you’re looking at a guy that every day comes out here and makes the most of his repetitions and learns and grows.”

As for Davis, he looks like the fourth man in a three-quarterback race at this point. He made the club as an undrafted rookie in 2012 out of Southern Mississippi and was a pregame inactive the entire season. In 2013, he was released at the end of training camp but re-signed with the team in late October after Bradford’s injury but again saw no game action.

“I’ve seen Austin grow and mature greatly in three years,” Cignetti said. “He knows the offense well. You can see he’s very comfortable. He’s making the most of the repetitions that he’s getting.”

Follow Jim Thomas on twitter @jthom1

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