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Confident, Conditioned Jackson Ready For Featured Role...
As Belleville News Democrat beat man Steve Korte recently framed it, "Steven Jackson felt like Lance Armstrong donning the yellow jersey in the Tour de France after being handed a bright gold No. 37 jersey at the start of the St. Louis Rams' training camp."

"We had to report and get our jerseys and grab our equipment, and they handed me that one," Jackson said. "I didn't know if it was something for a photo shoot or what."

Jackson and fellow running back Marshall Faulk are wearing yellow jerseys as a reminder to their teammates to keep any contact to a minimum. Not that Jackson has spent much time in camp avoiding contact.

In fact, as he begins his tenure as the Rams' starting running back, Jackson isn't shying away from much of anything.

"It's early, but I would say 'Big Train' is working hard," running backs coach Wilbert Montgomery said of the former first-round draft pick. "It's like he's picked up right where he's left off in mini-camp. He came back with the right attitude. The intensity is great. He's focused. He wants to be a young leader. He's showing a lot of toughness right now."

And according to St. Louis Post-Dispatch beat writer Jim Thomas, Jackson is showing all that and more. Almost all elite runners in the NFL have a certain confidence about them and Jackson has that air about him as well.

"Steven came in here with that certain air about him that great players have," head coach Mike Martz said. "He's very confident without being cocky. His feeling is just give him the ball and put it on his shoulders just like Jerome Bettis. Marshall has helped him with that."

"I'm sure he knows he still has stuff to learn, but from where he was at this point last year, it's obvious that he feels comfortable and he has that attitude that all good backs have," quarterback Marc Bulger said of Jackson. "They want the ball every down. Even in practice, he's starting to be a lot more vocal in the huddle. It's great to have that."

Of course, the passing of the torch from Faulk to Jackson comes as the Rams try to revive a running game that tied for 25th among the NFL's 32 teams last season. They averaged only 4.3 yards per carry and had only 11 rushing touchdowns. Bulger believes the more physical Jackson will allow the rushing game take some pressure off the passing attack this season.

As Martz put it: "[Jackson] has the quickness, the agility of that little guy. And he's that power runner as well. He can run through those arm tackles and be very physical. We can play power football with him down after down. He can take that punishment."

As a first-year player, Jackson rushed for 673 yards and four touchdowns on 134 carries, with his 5.0-yards-per-carry average ranking 15th best in the league. He fumbled in his first game, against the Cardinals, but then went the rest of the regular season and two playoff games without a turnover.

His breakout game was a 148-yard, 6.2-yard-average performance against the Eagles in the second-to-last Monday night contest of the season. Martz termed Jackson's effort that night as "spectacular."

Since then, Jackson has been all about getting ready to handle an increased workload, dropping five pounds over the offseason and according to observers, getting noticeably quicker. His body fat is a mere 5 percent; his chiseled physique is imposing.

"He's 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds, and he's got those scary-looking dreadlocks," veteran receiver Torry Holt said. "He runs strong. He catches the ball well, and you know how critical it is. Running backs in this offense have to know the offense as well as the quarterback. If the back is getting 5 or 6 [yards] per carry, the impact is huge. Teams will have to bring an extra man in to handle it.

"That opens one-on-one matchups for the wide receivers. Steven's explosion is incredible."

Martz appears to be dead set on taking full advantage of Jackson's more physical presence.

Indeed, the return of veteran tight end and blocking specialist Roland Williams offers the chance for the Rams to switch into two-tight end sets with two players -- Williams (who caught six TD passes for the Rams in their 1999 Super Bowl campaign) and Brandon Manumaleuna -- who every bit as adept at blocking as they are at catching the ball.

The 288-pound Manumaleuna can also line up at fullback and as insider John Clayton recently noted, Martz isn't opposed to calling four or five running plays in a row to confuse a defense.

Meanwhile, Faulk, one of the most effective receiving backs in recent years will continue to play a role in the passing attack. Because Martz can let Jackson pound the ball into the middle of the defense, Faulk lost weight in order to enhance his quickness in running routes.

Bulger also believes Faulk will continue to be an important part of the Rams' offense working off the bench.

"He's too much of a competitor to sit there and not want to be involved with the game and do everything he can to be ready," Bulger said. "Having Steven taking 60-75 percent of the reps is good. Marshall can come in fresh. When he gets in there, he is not going to let some first- or second-year guy show him up."

The bottom line?

With a year of learning and experience under his belt, Jackson is primed for a big year as the feature back. And if he delivers as expected, Bulger, Holt, Isaac Bruce and Kevin Curtis will emerge as even more dangerous and prolific Fantasy prospects than expected.

And if you're not sure if Jackson is ready for the responsibility that comes with a featured role, just ask him.

"That's what I came here wanting to do," he explained. "Carry the ball. There's no pressure that's going to be put on me that I haven't put on myself. The outside pressure is not the big thing to me; it's me not letting my teammates down. That's the one thing I don't want to happen.

"I'm actually living out a dream. I've actually been named the starter of an NFL team. Now, I feel like I'm beginning my career. ..."

One last note here. ... Jackson is thrilled with this week's switch from AstroTurf to FieldTurf at the Edward Jones Dome. The team practiced on the new field for the first time Wednesday then again today.

Martz has been lobbying for new turf at the dome after watching Jackson, who had arthroscopic surgery knee in the offseason, limp off the field after banging said knee on the old turf last season.