Tonight figures to be a big night for the Rams’ Eric Stevens.
The only fullback on the club’s 90-man roster, Stevens will get to showcase his blocking and special-team skills when the Rams open the preseason schedule against the Browns in Cleveland.
“It’s a huge opportunity for everyone because it’s the first game, the first real chance to show what we can do,’’ said Stevens, who stands 5 feet 11 and weighs 240 pounds. “As a fullback, you only get so many reps in practice and because we’ve only been in full pads a couple of times, tonight will be the first time we get a chance to go all out.
“I want to show the coaches that I can block and do my job, fill my role. And hopefully I can also show them that I’m athletic enough to make plays and contribute on special teams, too.’’
In recent seasons, with more teams going to spread attacks featuring one-back sets and quarterbacks in the shotgun, the role of the traditional fullback has been phased out and replaced by more versatile backs, tight ends or H-backs.
“We’re definitely a dying breed, so you have to find a way to make the most out of every opportunity you get,’’ Stevens said. “Even at the college level, there aren’t a lot of guys playing fullback anymore. Still, almost every NFL team carries a fullback, so there’s a need.’’
Stevens, the younger brother of Tennessee Titans tight end Craig Stevens, starred in football and wrestling as as a high school player in San Pedro, Calif., before following in his brother’s footsteps as a walk-on linebacker at the University of California. At Cal, he made an early shift to fullback.
“The starting fullback was graduating and Coach (Ron) Gould asked if I’d be interested,’’ Stevens recalled. “I jumped at it, figuring that was my best chance to play sooner, help the team and earn a scholarship.’’
Stevens enjoyed a solid yet unspectacular career with the Bears. He was the team’s main fullback in 2010, missed the 2011 season after having knee surgery and returned last year to recapture the starting job.
In 2012, as the lead blocker for fellow seniors C.J. Anderson (in camp with the Denver Broncos) and Isi Sofele (with the CFL’s British Columbia Lions), Stevens had 13 carries for 51 yards and caught nine passes for 55. He also excelled as a special-teamer.
“I don’t mind doing the dirty work and staying under the radar,’’ said Stevens, who received Cal’s Joe Roth Award, which is given annually to the player who exemplifies courage, attitude and sportsmanship. “I enjoy blocking and I’ve never shied away from making contact. I think that’s why I enjoy special teams so much because it’s a chance to really let loose and get after it.’’
Rams coach Jeff Fisher has been impressed with the progress made in camp by the first-year players. But tonight, everything moves to another level.
“They have an opportunity to go out there and do the right thing,’’ Fisher said. “That’s what we want to see, the carryover of things they’ve learned from the meeting room and the practice field into a game. But we’ve got a lot of players that have not played in an NFL game before and there’s going to be a shock factor early. So you encourage them to pay close attention to the vets and what they’re doing the first couple of series, and to prepare yourself because the tempo, intensity and contact’s a lot different.’’
The Rams figure to keep things pretty basic throughout their preseason schedule, trying not to expose too much of the playbook. “We’re very excited about it because you get to see guys play,’’ Fisher said. “They’re all going to have different roles in the game. Starters aren’t going to play as much as some of the guys that are competing for roster spots. So, you try to keep in perspective what you’re ask them to do.”
Over the last few days of practice the Rams have gone over a lot of game situations to make sure the young team is as ready as possible.
“You’re preparing for the (regular-season) opener, but you’re also preparing for your first preseason game,’’ Fisher said. “Football is football. We’ll have enough to give them a chance to make some plays.”
The Rams will return to practice in Earth City on Saturday, working out from 3:30-5:30 p.m. It is open to the public. They’ll host Green Bay at the Edward Jones Dome on Aug. 17, at 7 p.m.