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Stability should help DL
SAN DIEGO – When second-round pick Kendall Reyes arrived at Chargers Park last Friday, one of the first queries he faced involved the Zoo.
Not the world-famous version in Balboa Park, but the defensive line enclave smack in the middle of the Chargers locker room.
Reyes, a Connecticut defensive tackle expected to play inside in San Diego’s four-man front nickel packages and compete for time at defensive end, already had heard commentary on the team’s most rambunctious positional group.
Though the Chargers have incorporated several young defensive linemen – last year’s first-round pick Corey Liuget; Vaughn Martin, a 15-game starter in 2011 in his third season removed from Canadian college football; Cam Thomas, a third-year backup nose tackle; and now Reyes – the “Zoo” remains intact thanks to the re-signing of a few original members.
Antonio Garay returned with a two-year contract after spending time as a free agent. Luis Castillo, too, re-signed after the Chargers released him earlier in the offseason and offered him a restructured contract. And Jacques Cesaire, one of the team’s most well-respected veterans, also remains on the roster.
Cesaire (10 years) and Castillo (eight years) have spent their entire careers in the Chargers organization and are a big reason why San Diego’s defensive linemen are so close off the field. Garay, whose sense of humor became more public when he purchased a Hello Kitty Smart car, is entering his fourth year with the team, but has been in the league since ’03.
“We have a good group of guys. A lot of camaraderie. A lot of talent,” Garay said. “We expect the older guys to do exactly what they’ve always done. Continue to lead. And we expect these younger guys to fill even a bigger role this year than they have in the past.”
Castillo, who injured his leg in the season opener last year and missed the last 15 games, has participated in every organized offseason workout through two weeks of the program and said he has recovered well.
“It’s a challenge when you spend a season doing all the work but not getting any of the gratification,” Castillo said. “It’s good to be doing football-related activities again with the team and on the field. I’m extremely encouraged by how things have gone.”
Castillo and Cesaire have started nearly 150 combined games and played in more than 200 for the Chargers. Garay was the team’s most productive defensive lineman the last two years, starting 28 games. His 108 tackles, eight sacks, 29 quarterback hits and 19 tackles for loss were by far the most among Chargers defensive linemen in 2010-11.
Retaining all three while continuing to develop Liuget and Martin, both of whom started 28 of a possible 32 games at defensive end in 2011, and building greater depth with Thomas and Reyes, the Chargers believe the defensive line is in good shape.
“I think you look around the building and we’re one of the only rooms that didn’t have a lot of change. There was the possibility of a lot of change, but it didn’t end up happening, and we’re all here and we’re all together,” Castillo said. “It means a lot to us because we’re a really close-knit group.
“I think when you give a guy a chance to go out there and continue to build on the foundation we’ve laid over the years in terms of the relationships we have, the camaraderie, the way we work off each other and the way we help each other, it’s only going to make us better as a position.”