Los Angeles — Any time a National Football League franchise gets visibly excited about a third-round draft pick, generally it's because the sale of season tickets is down and the publicity department is desperate for a gimmick. It also helps if the rookie has an unusual-sounding name.
But since the Los Angeles Rams have long since cut off 1980 season ticket applications at 67,000, no superlative seems inflated for 5 ft. 10 in. 233-pound running back Jewerl Thomas of San Jose State, who pronounces his first name jer-el.
For those who think the US Army may have misplaced one of its mini-tanks, Thomas says he expects to play closer to 220 pounds. The extra weight he carried in last year's Senior Bowl, where he rushed 11 times for 44 yards and one touchdown, then scored twice more on passes, was because of an injury that kept him from working out. And when Jewerl sits, he has a tendency to balloon.
Thomas, who left UCLA for San Jose voluntarily after his sophomore year, did not come cheap. Just prior to the draft, Los Angeles gave San Francisco two high future choices plus former All-Pro Charlie Young for the chance to land Jewerl.
Thomas is not, at this point, even mentioned in preseason speculation for NFL Rookie of the Year honors, a place that seems reserved for Oklahoma's Billy Sims. But San Jose State didn't exactly build its entire team around Jewerl, either, the way the Sooners did around Sims.
Yet Thomas, on a college team that seemed to think it was mandatory to throw every time it had the ball, still managed to gain 825 yards on just 154 carries. He also caught 30 passes for 276 pieces of real estate. And there is a feeling that most 190-pound NFL defensive backs may have trouble stopping him in an open field.
Ram scouts who caught Jewerl's performance in the East-West Shrine Game all noted his ability to hit hard inside and then slide outside for the big gainer. His clocking for 40 yards is 4.5 seconds, not exactly Tony Dorsett, but plenty good enough for someone who is probably going to play fullback as well as halfback.
Thomas is a kid who is going to get extra attention in training camp. He'll be tested right away on his ability to pass block for the QB, and will also get a chance to show whether he can catch the football coming out of the backfield.
Although the Rams have two excellent first-string backs in Wendell Tyler and Cullen Bryant, the only experienced backup people they have are Elvis Peacock, Jim Jodat, and Eddie Hill. Lawrence McCutcheon and John Cappelletti have been traded.
Tyler, who has the kind of moves that would not be out of place in a washing machine, is a great breakaway runner who gained 1,109 yards last year, 10th best in the NFL. Bryant is 236 pounds of railroad car; good for three yards almost any time in traffic; and a fine pass blocker.
Peacock, who has been fighting injuries for two years, still must prove that he can deliver consistently under game conditions. Jodat, sidelined most of last year, gained only six yards on six carries. Hill, whose style seems more suited to running back kickoffs and punts, might have a chance if he didn't always seem to start his safaris in traffic.
With Head Coach Ray Malavasi becoming more of an overseer this year, former receivers' coach Lionel Taylor is the team's new offensive coordinator.
Taylor, who five times led the old American Football League in pass receptions when he played for Denver, is an advocate of big-play football.
Basically that means pressuring the opposition by passing regularly on first down; flooding one side of the field with receivers in certain situations; and throwing while still inside your own territory. That is, if you think you can make it work.
Still, no NFL team wins consistently without establishing its ground game, and Thomas, if LA can speed up his timetable, could be a very important rookie.