EARTH CITY — Tre Mason came down the field and E.J. Gaines, usually a staunch defender, didn't put a hand on him.
Six months ago that's just what happened to Gaines and the Missouri defense in the Southeastern Conference Championship game. Mason and Auburn gashed Missouri for 544 rushing yards in a convincing 59-42 victory.
But on this mild June afternoon at the Russell Athletic Training Complex in suburban St. Louis, Gaines' new coaches instructed him to let Mason go by. The St. Louis Rams, in their first week of organized team activities, practiced without pads as they began the NFL preseason. Gaines, a sixth-round selection by St. Louis in this year's draft, is trying to get acclimated to the defense before he puts any serious hits on Mason or other offensive players.
Mason joins three other former Auburn players on the St. Louis roster. Fortunately for Gaines, Missouri football is equally represented on the team. Michael Sam, T.J. Moe, Tim Barnes and Gaines, all teammates at some point during their Missouri careers, are trying to make the Rams' final roster.
"It is cool," Gaines, a cornerback, said of his former Missouri teammates. "You know people when you get here. But I'm also here to meet new people like the Auburn guys, you know, that I might not have liked during the (college) season."
While rookies such as Gaines and Sam try to learn a new playbook and meet their new teammates, veterans such as Barnes are trying to make them feel like part of the team.
Barnes, an offensive lineman who has been with the Rams the past two years and last played for Missouri during the 2010 season, is using his experience to do so.
"I'm just making sure I say something like, 'Hey, how're you doing today?'" Barnes said. "I think it's important for them to hear something like that just to help them get acclimated."
For Gaines, getting back on the field will go a long way.
He said he hasn't put on pads or a helmet since Missouri's Cotton Bowl victory on Jan. 3, and he had been living and training for the draft with his dad near Kansas City. Two days after being drafted, Gaines left for his new life in St. Louis.
In addition to working with the secondary on Thursday, Gaines and other rookies put in time with the special teams. Although this NFL right-of-passage can be dreaded by those unfamiliar with the kicking and return games, Gaines said he's trying to get as many special teams reps as possible.
"Mizzou, they don't care who you are, you're going to play special teams," Gaines said. "It's no different coming here. They definitely make it exciting to come out here and play special teams. All the vets I've talk to have said, 'Hey, this is where it starts.'"
The end game for Gaines and the other rookies, though, is to make the final roster. Rams coach Jeff Fisher must cut players throughout the summer until only 53 appear on the game day sheet. With 87 players entering OTAs with the Rams, guys like Gaines, Sam and Moe are no locks to be playing on Sundays — or on the sidelines.
But don't tell that to Gaines. Right now, he can't wait to finally put on pads and hit someone like Mason.
"Football is my job now, and I love it," Gaines said.
Supervising editor is Sean Morrison.