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Special teams could shift younger
SAN DIEGO – The Chargers’ blueprint to clean up last year’s special teams debacle includes hoarding speedy young players passionate about football.
Last year’s string of injuries necessitated patchwork veteran signings that improved the kicking units for most of the season’s second half.
Head Coach Norv Turner hinted that wouldn’t be the long-term solution in San Diego when he commended new special teams coach Rich Bisaccia’s knack for massaging youth into special teams monsters. The Chargers backed that notion with several draft picks.
General Manager A.J. Smith confirmed a greater emphasis on finding special teams contributors in this year’s draft to help a team that finished No. 1 in the NFL in total offense and defense but did not make the playoffs with a 9-7 record.
“We’re trying to upgrade special teams with speed guys, quick guys, and more importantly what we call football temperament,” Smith said. “We’ve got to get back to that mentality where you’re going to go down there and get after people.”
One of Bisaccia’s first tasks at Chargers Park was analyzing the 2010 special teams players to help create a working two-deep depth chart. The draft picks add bodies to a handful of young special teams candidates slowed by injuries last season.
Rookie draft picks Marcus Gilchrist, Jonas Mouton, Shareece Wright and Andrew Gachkar seem destined to compete for playing time on the kick units. They’ll add to an expanding collection that may give San Diego a chance to hand-pick physically-talented guys with special teams history and an aggressive mindset to match.
Injuries affected potential special teams options James Holt, Donald Butler, Darrell Stuckey, Kion Wilson, Richard Goodman and even Larry English in some fashion last season. Wilson and Goodman began the year on the practice squad before making the active roster as undrafted rookies in part because of their preseason production on special teams and their hard-charging practice styles. Brandon Lang, who blocked a punt during the preseason, made the team as an undrafted rookie.
San Diego also signed free agent safety C.J. Wallace in January and could bring back one or more of the in-season special teams signees to compete as well. Wallace made 14 special teams tackles in 12 games for Seattle in ’08.
Turner, Bisaccia and the coaches could turn the entire group loose when football resumes and let their habits and production determine who wants the coveted spots most.
“It certainly adds competition throughout our entire team. Any time you can add competition to any position, you’re giving yourself an opportunity to be better,” Bisaccia said of the draft picks. “They’ll have an opportunity to compete with the others and earn a spot. The best players will play.”
Bisaccia expects Gilchrist to at least compete for a depth chart spot as a returner after a solid season returning kicks for Clemson. Young running backs and receivers (draft picks Jordan Todman and Vincent Brown fit that description) will have an opportunity to prove they can catch and return kicks, Bisaccia said. Otherwise they’ll be expected to block.
The draft picks will not earn special teams roles automatically, but several expressed a willingness to tear down the field, block or chase after returners in a way that matches Smith’s wish list.
“Before returning (punts and kicks) I’ve even blocked on kickoff return,” Gilchrist said. “I’ve been exposed to every special team and I’m going to be the first guy in line trying to play special teams.”
Said Mouton: “It’s an important part of the game. We’re all going to take it serious and wherever we’re needed, I’m sure we’ll be the guys that step up.”
An infusion of youth could help counter the other AFC West teams, each of which boasts a talented young returner. The Chargers face Jacoby Ford (Oakland), Eddie Royal (Denver), Javier Arenas and Dexter McCluster (Kansas City) a combined six games each season.
“We’re not very happy with what happened last year. Unacceptable,” Smith said. “We have a new special teams coach and there’s been a heavy (special teams) emphasis on a lot of the players we brought in here.
“You’re going to wait your turn in some cases before you become a starter in the league, but we think they’re going to contribute immediately on special teams.”