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Chargers develop young special teams corps
SAN DIEGO – The Chargers’ special teams became an asset in 2011 with an influx of young players, which bodes well for next season.
General Manager A.J. Smith and the player personnel department have found several kicking game contributors in recent NFL drafts.
A pair of Chargers from the last two drafts tied for the team lead in special teams tackles and a college free agent signed in 2010 ranked fourth in average yards per kickoff return (27.5).
San Diego’s kickoff coverage improved from 26th to 11th in the NFL, allowing 5.7 fewer yards per return.
“We do have a good core of young guys and I think it bodes well for our future,” Head Coach Norv Turner said.
The Chargers selected second-year safety Darrell Stuckey in the fourth-round of the 2010 draft. After appearing in just one game his rookie season, Stuckey was a special-teams standout. He tied Andrew Gachkar and Mike Tolbert for the team lead with 12 special teams tackles in 2011.
Stuckey arguably had his best game against the defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers in Week 9. He collected two tackles on kickoff and punt coverages and also recovered an onside kick off the foot of Nick Novak.
Gachkar, a linebacker, had the most productive rookie season by a Chargers seventh-round pick since Brandon Siler in 2007 (21 special teams tackles).
Undrafted rookie linebacker Bront Bird also contributed eight special teams tackles in nine games.
Second-year long snapper Mike Windt had a big task filling in for David Binn in 2010 after the franchise’s all-time leader in seasons (17) and games played (256) suffered a season-ending hamstring injury in the opener. Windt’s accurate snaps carried into this season’s training camp as he became the first new opening-day long snapper for the Chargers since 1994.
Veterans Tolbert and Jacob Hester have been special teams fixtures since they arrived in 2008. Tolbert wasn’t just busy on offense this season (10 touchdowns); he also earned the team’s Special Teams Player of the Year honor.
Special teams often are the least-discussed aspects of football, but as a head coach, Turner knows the influence the kicking game has on the outcome.
“The first thing you want to do is always make sure you’re secure with the ball and you’re not giving up plays and field position because you’re mishandling the ball,” Turner said. “Then the next thing is: are you making plays that can impact the game? Game-changing plays?”
San Diego’s special teams made several in 2011.
In addition to his high NFL kickoff return rank (fourth), Richard Goodman raced for a franchise-record 105-yard touchdown Week 17 in Oakland, the first kickoff return touchdown for the Chargers since 2008 (Darren Sproles).
The Chargers executed a pivotal fake punt Week 14 against Buffalo. All-Pro safety Eric Weddle, the Chargers’ personal protector on punts, diagnosed the Bills’ alignment, called for the fake and rushed 10 yards for the first down. Buffalo had scored 10 unanswered points and crept within six before the fake ignited a 78-yard touchdown drive.
In the season-opener against Minnesota, Mike Scifres inherited placekicking duties for Nate Kaeding (knee) and Weddle replaced Scifres for the remainder of the game. Scifres sent a game-tying field goal through the uprights in the 20-17 victory.
The Chargers immediately signed Novak, who opened the season by making 12-straight field goals and set team records for makes of at least 40 and 50 yards (12 and four).
“We take pride in setting the tone and we enjoy being out there,” Stuckey said. “Special teams come out first regardless every game. We definitely know our role on the team and we strive to be consistent.”