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Sports

Defensive lineman Michael Hoecht ’20 fights for roster spot on Los Angeles Rams

After pandemic-altered year on Rams practice squad, Hoecht hopes to break through in second NFL season

By
Contributing Writer
Thursday, March 11, 2021

Former Brown football captain and defensive lineman for the @Rams Michael Hoecht hopes to make a breakthrough after a pandemic-altered season.

Michael Hoecht ’20, Brown football’s team captain in the 2019 season, spent the 2020 NFL season on the practice squad of the Los Angeles Rams after going undrafted. He looks to earn his way onto the playing field in his sophomore campaign after building on a year of practice against NFL competition. 

“He’s only scratching the surface,” said Brown football coach James Perry ’00. “Some of his best qualities will start to show up at these practices, at these workouts. As they see him work and how great a practicer he is, he’s gonna make that team.”

His senior season at Brown, Hoecht tallied 4.5 sacks and was named Second Team All-Ivy League. But Hoecht’s impact on games went beyond the statistics sheet, according to Brown defensive line coach Michael Donovan. “As a defensive tackle, he was very disruptive. Sometimes that disruption isn’t measured in statistics,” Donovan said. “He was very difficult to block. He was always someone the offense had to account for.” 

Hoecht’s coaches noted how difficult he was to double team and how much trouble centers had blocking him. He also worked to lose weight before his senior season to accommodate a defensive scheme change. Despite Hoecht’s size (he is currently listed at 6 feet 4 inches tall and 310 pounds on the Rams roster), his coaches at Brown sometimes had him rush as a defensive end, demonstrating how highly they valued his speed and athleticism. 

Perry also emphasized Hoecht’s leadership and work ethic. “He was our captain and he really epitomized what a captain should be,” Perry said. “That’s a nice thing, when your most talented guy is also a great worker.”

After his senior season ended, Hoecht started training in Boston to prepare for the NFL Draft. But the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in early March 2020 complicated his plans. A workout with the San Francisco 49ers that Hoecht was scheduled to attend was cancelled at the last minute when the team’s scouts stopped travelling as the pandemic worsened. His pro day was also cancelled, leading Hoecht to improvise and hold his own pro day, which he videoed and sent to scouts. 

Hoecht, like so many others, had to adapt his training as a result of the pandemic. “You just kinda had to make do,” he told The Herald. “There have been a lot of people who have struggled to make the transition to the virtual work, but I think that I was able to navigate that well.”

At his virtual pro day, Hoecht posted gaudy numbers, especially considering his size. He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.65 seconds, ran the 20-yard short shuttle in 4.21 seconds and completed the three-cone drill in 7.05 seconds. Each of these times would have been among the very best among interior defensive line prospects at the 2020 NFL Combine. These times were not just hollow numbers, according to Perry. “Not only was he a (sub-4.7) guy at 290 (pounds), but he really played fast on the field, and that’s not always true,” Perry said. “He had the ability to convert some of those Combine numbers to production on the field.”

After going undrafted, Hoecht signed a contract with the Los Angeles Rams as an undrafted free agent, a fit he said he couldn’t be happier with. “From a scheme and a culture standpoint, the Rams were my number one choice,” he said. 

For Hoecht, draft position — or even going undrafted — is less important than how one actually plays. He remains focused on his future in the NFL, rather than how he got there. “All that matters is that you get (to the NFL) and then it’s up to you to figure out what you do with that opportunity,” he said.

The process of making the practice squad during the COVID-19 pandemic was far different from usual. The pandemic resulted in a truncated NFL offseason, with normal activities such as rookie minicamp and offseason training activities being cancelled. Preseason games, which are typically prime opportunities for young players like Hoecht to showcase their skills in true game settings, did not happen. 

Instead, the league only held training camp. On his first day of training camp, Hoecht was found to be a close contact to someone who tested positive for COVID-19 under the NFL’s contact tracing program. Fortunately for Hoecht, he did not contract the virus and, after repeated negative test results, he was cleared to return to the field. 

Hoecht was released before the start of the NFL season but was re-signed to the Rams practice squad. While his status as a practice squad player meant he didn’t get any true game experience, the practice time he got against NFL-caliber opponents was invaluable. “There’s a huge difference between an eight-year vet on an NFL offensive line versus Ivy League football,” he said. “There’s such a huge leap to the next level, so every one of those reps was important to me.”

Looking back, Hoecht is content with how his first NFL season went. “My mentality is that it was a redshirt year — a year for growth, a year for development, a year for understanding the system and transitioning from being a college player to becoming a professional,” he said. “I grew a ton and learned a ton.”

Being on the practice squad during a season altered by the pandemic was not entirely without its perks. In a traditional season, practice squad players typically don’t travel with the team to road games. But due to the pandemic, the NFL altered its rules and allowed for certain practice squad players to be temporarily added to the gameday roster. While Hoecht was never elevated to the roster, he and the rest of the practice squad players did travel with the team to road games. “As far as years to be on the practice squad, I don’t wanna say I lucked out, but I got a ton of exposure and experience that in a normal year I probably wouldn’t get,” he said. 

Hoecht signed a reserve/futures contract, which allows teams to sign a player not currently on an NFL active roster for the next season before the official start of free agency, with the Rams January 18. The deal makes Hoecht the only Brown alum currently signed to an NFL team. 

Hoecht has benefitted from being a member of a talent-laden Rams defensive line position group headlined by three-time AP Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald and longtime Rams starter Michael Brockers. The group is coached by Rams defensive line coach and run game coordinator Eric Henderson. “The amount of knowledge in that room is insane,” Hoecht said. 

Hoecht compared himself to Rams defensive lineman Morgan Fox, who recorded six sacks in the 2020-2021 season. “I have good quickness, good speed and can rush the passer really, really well,” Hoecht said of his playstyle, which compares to that of Fox. They’ve also taken similar career paths — Fox attended a lesser-known football school, Colorado State University Pueblo. Fox spent time on the practice squad before finally breaking through and becoming a productive NFL player, a trajectory Hoecht hopes to follow. 

Hoecht praised the Rams culture and his teammates, who were always supportive of younger players. He emphasized that, despite being world-class athletes, the players in an NFL locker room are just normal people who come from a variety of backgrounds and bring a variety of perspectives. “At the end of the day, football guys are football guys,” he said.  “It’s not like these people are necessarily different in any way; they’re just really good at football.”

“Now that I have a year of experience under my belt, I know what is required of me and where I need to grow to become the player that I need to be,” Hoecht added. “Year one, (the goal) was to get on the team. Year two will be to get on the active roster and begin to produce, something I’m very much looking forward to doing.”

Hoecht’s coaches at Brown offered optimistic assessments of his NFL future. “A guy like Michael, with that work ethic, can hang in there and earn that type of opportunity,” Donovan said. “He has the athletic traits and he has the work ethic, and when you have those two things and that direction, good things are going to happen.”After adding star quarterback Matthew Stafford to a talented roster that made the playoffs last year, the Rams look to make a deep playoff run in 2021. “We’re gonna give a lot of people problems,” Hoecht said.

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