For­mer Tro­jans are happy to be re­united

Robey-Cole­man and Woods went from USC to Buf­falo and back to Los An­ge­les.

Los Angeles Times - - INSIDE BASEBALL - By Gary Klein gary.klein@la­times.com Twit­ter: @la­timesklein

The prac­tice matchup has played out thou­sands of times in more than seven years, first when they were teenage team­mates at USC, then as young pros with the Buf­falo Bills and now as NFL veter­ans prepar­ing for their first sea­son with the Rams.

Cor­ner­back Nickell Robey-Cole­man bends his knees, stares di­rectly across the line of scrim­mage at re­ceiver Robert Woods and read­ies for a chal­lenge.

It hap­pened again dur­ing the Rams’ or­ga­nized team ac­tiv­i­ties last week.

On a third-down play near the goal line, Woods ran a slant pat­tern into the end zone. Robey-Cole­man matched him stride for stride as Woods an­tic­i­pated a pass from quar­ter­back Jared Goff.

Goff fired and RobeyCole­man reached in at the last mo­ment and bat­ted the ball away.

“It’s like the old SC con­nec­tion,” Robey-Cole­man said of the duel with Woods. “Go­ing at it one on one — and af­ter­ward we al­ways talk.

“It’s all com­ing back. The best en­ergy I’ve been feel­ing in a while.”

About a month af­ter sign­ing Woods to a five-year, $34-mil­lion con­tract, the Rams in April signed RobeyCole­man to a one-year deal worth $855,000, ac­cord­ing to spo­trac.com.

“It feels great to be back in L.A,” Robey-Cole­man said. “Just like wak­ing up this morn­ing: It’s sunny skies, clear weather and you can see the moun­tains while I’m at the [pre-prac­tice] walk-through.”

Far dif­fer­ent, he said, “than wak­ing up in Buf­falo and just go­ing to work.”

Robey-Cole­man’s re­turn to the South­land has been marked by de­ter­mi­na­tion.

The 5-foot-8, 178-pound Florida na­tive started for three seasons at USC be­fore ig­nor­ing the ad­vice of coaches and NFL eval­u­a­tors and mak­ing him­self avail­able for the 2013 NFL draft af­ter his ju­nior year.

Af­ter go­ing un­s­e­lected, he said he had only a mo­ment of re­gret about giving up his fi­nal year of col­lege eli­gi­bil­ity.

“It crossed my mind for one sec­ond,” he said.

But the op­por­tu­nity to make a team and earn an NFL salary kept him mo­ti­vated: “I told my­self, ‘You’ve just got to cap­i­tal­ize. You not go­ing in draft doesn’t de­ter­mine who you re­ally are.’ ”

Robey-Cole­man made the Bills as a rookie and played in all 32 games his first two seasons as a nickel back and on spe­cial teams. In 2015, the Bills signed him to a two-year, $4.1-mil­lion ex­ten­sion.

Af­ter the 2015 sea­son, he changed his name from Robey to Robey-Cole­man in honor of his late mother, the for­mer Max­ine Cole­man, who died from a heart at­tack dur­ing his se­nior year of high school.

Last sea­son against the Rams, Robey-Cole­man had a ca­reer-chang­ing game at the Coli­seum. With the score 16-16 late in the third quar­ter, he in­ter­cepted a pass by Case Keenum and re­turned it 41 yards for a touch­down. He added an­other in­ter­cep­tion late to seal a 30-19 Bills vic­tory.

Rams gen­eral man­ager Les Snead re­called the per­for­mance when he saw Robey-Cole­man’s name sur­pris­ingly ap­pear on the NFL trans­ac­tions wire be­fore the start of free agency. The Bills had re­leased him in a cost­cut­ting move.

“You im­me­di­ately go back to, ‘Oh, yeah, there’s a pick-six and we lived it,’ ” Snead said, adding, “The play meant some­thing, but what it also meant is you def­i­nitely go back and watch the film and re­view his history.”

Robey-Cole­man is “un­der­sized,” Snead said, but the ex­ec­u­tive saw a de­ter­mined and com­pet­i­tive player who be­came a main­stay for the Bills in the nickel role.

And with the Rams plan­ning to move La­mar­cus Joyner from slot cor­ner to free safety, they were in the mar­ket for proven de­fen­sive backs.

“Any time that you add depth like a Nickell does add, where he’s played a lot of football, it gives you some ver­sa­til­ity to move a spe­cial player like La­mar­cus around,” coach Sean McVay said.

The Rams, Robey-Cole­man said, were a good fit for him pro­fes­sion­ally and be­cause the move brought him closer to USC. He at­tended spring se­mes­ter classes and is close to earn­ing his de­gree, a prom­ise he made to his mother.

Woods, who grad­u­ated from USC last year, said he was happy to be re­united with Robey and con­tinue their daily duels.

“He’s very, very smart — some­one I can talk to on the side af­ter plays,” Woods said. “It’s a great com­pe­ti­tion.”

Robey-Cole­man considers his long as­so­ci­a­tion with Woods, com­plet­ing his ed­u­ca­tion and his re­turn to Los An­ge­les some­thing else.

“I’m just so grate­ful,” he said. “This is a bless­ing.”

Robert Gau­thier Los An­ge­les Times

NICKELL ROBEY-COLE­MAN, play­ing for the Bills last sea­son, heads to the end zone for a pick-six against the Rams. Robey-Cole­man is now with the Rams.

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