Camp homecoming for Rams’ Niklos

? It’s not just a nod to local fashion when new St. Louis Rams fullback J.R. Niklos wears Western Illinois University apparel after practice.

The shirts and hats are left over from the college career of a player who’s become the local success story after a vagabond beginning in the NFL.

“I’m having a great time, seeing my old coaches and practicing on the fields I practiced on for four years,” Niklos said. “This is fun.”

The Rams are staying in Thompson Hall, where he lived for two years during his scholastic career, and Niklos said he was “sleeping like a baby.”

“When I graduated I’m like, ‘Man, I don’t know if I’m ever going to be back here,'” Niklos said. “I’d rather be here than anywhere. It’s just like being home again.”

Running with the first team makes it even more fun. Niklos bounced from a Rams inactive roster before being released to the Seahawks’ practice squad last year. In 2002 he was on the Rams’ roster for 12 games, but never dressed.

The departure of bruising James Hodgins, who left for the Cardinals as a free agent opened the door for Niklos. Coach Mike Martz quietly gave Niklos, who had career highs in receptions (44) and yards (589) as a senior at Western Illinois in 2001, the job in March.

There will be competition. Earlier this week Chad Kuhns took the majority of the reps at fullback with the first unit.

Niklos isn’t the battering Ram that the 270-pound Hodgins was. He’s 30 pounds lighter and last year played tailback in practice when Marshall Faulk was sidelined.

Still, there’s enough heft. Plus, he’s learned the nuances of fullback quickly enough to suit Martz.

Fullback is well short of a full-time position on the Rams, who use it about one-third of the time. Faulk often lines up alone in the backfield, and at times the tight end serves as a blocking back.

“The fullback might see the ball once a year,” Niklos said. “It’s an unselfish role I’ve got to do and I’m willing to do it.”