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Bolts Brass Pleased About Development of Youngsters
The commonly held notion is that it takes a few years for NFL players to fully reach their potential. This season, the Chargers appear to have a couple of rookies that are the exception to the rule in Melvin Ingram and Kendall Reyes, who are expected to have an immediate impact. However, there is a strong core of young players from the three prior draft classes that are rounding into form and are expected to be major contributors for the Bolts this season.
This group includes multiple members of the 2009 draft class such as guards Louis Vasquez and Tyronne Green, and linebacker Larry English.
Vasquez has been a key member of the offensive line right from the get-go, starting every game he’s appeared in the last three seasons.
“We think he’s doing outstanding,” said General Manger A.J. Smith. “We originally took him for his future and to plug him in at guard, and that is exactly where he has ended up. He’s had some little minor injuries along the way but has come through those very nicely. We’re pleased with his development. He’s really coming on to be a great pro, and he’s had a great offseason and training camp right now. So we’re excited about him.
Fellow guard Green has been a valuable backup along the offensive line for the Chargers, none more so than when he started eight of the final 10 games last year despite suffering from a broken finger. This season, he steps into the starting lineup on a full time basis for the Bolts.
“Tyronne was drafted as a possible guard-center for us,” explained Smith. “When Kris Dielman decided to retire, we plugged in Tyronne Green in that spot. What’s been a surprise to us is his versatility where he can also move out in a backup type of role at left tackle because he is a pretty good athlete. We’ve looked at him as someone who is a three way player, meaning guard first, and then a possible center and ability to play tackle in a pinch. We’re very pleased about his development.”
When healthy, English has performed admirably for the Chargers. The 6-foot-2, 255-pounder has appeared in 29 career games and amassed 52 tackles (including nine for a loss) as well as seven sacks. He seemed set for a huge campaign in 2011 when he suffered a broken foot in week six and was placed on injured reserved. Still, the team has high hopes for the former first round pick and looks forward to seeing what he can do on the field this season.
“Larry English is a guy who I have said from day one is extremely talented,” said Smith. “I think all of us within the organization have known that. He has unfortunately had some setbacks, most notably multiple operations on his foot, but he’s maintained and moved forward. Right now, knock on wood, for this season he’s been relatively healthy. He’s a man on a mission and has absolutely been fantastic in our training camp. We see him as a pass rusher – we always have – and he has particularly in the last week or so been incredibly explosive off the edge. His attitude is still right there, which is hard for a guy to do when you’ve been knocked down so much and disappointed so much. As far as his development, all he needs to be is healthy. If he can remain healthy, the rest will take care of itself.”
The 2010 draft class is highlighted by Ryan Mathews, a Pro Bowler in 2011 who is still expected to have a phenomenal season despite his current collarbone injury. However, there are other players set to make an impact including defensive end Vaughn Martin, linebacker Donald Butler, safety Darrell Stuckey, and defensive tackle Cam Thomas, who all figure heavily into this year’s plans.
After two years as a key reserve, Martin stepped into a starting role last season and recorded one sack along with 35 tackles, including five for a loss. For his career he has 65 takedowns and two sacks.
“Vaughn is a guy who we got as a youngster, and we saw upside on him,” said Smith. “He’s another guy who we are extremely pleased with regarding his development. It’s a bad thing that happened to us with some injuries we’ve had in the past, but the good thing is that some of our guys had to play earlier than we wanted to and he is one who did and excelled. Vaughn has all the ability in the world – the size, speed and athletic ability – and he wants to be really, really good and he’s working very hard. He can help us in our rotation and will make a name for himself.”
Butler, a third-round pick out of Washington, missed his entire rookie season after tearing his left Achilles tendon in training camp. He came back strong in 2011, starting all 16 games on his way to recording 102 tackles (second highest on the team), two sacks, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery. Head coach Norv Turner was understandably thrilled with his production last season and is encouraged by his progression thus far through the early portion of 2012.
“I think Donald has been outstanding and he has gotten better throughout this camp,” he said. “He’s a guy that still has limited experience even though he played a year ago. I think there’s some time when you’re a rookie like he was and you try to hang in there. I think he’s beyond that. I think he’s diagnosing that and he’s doing things better and playing faster.”
After appearing in only one game as a rookie, Stuckey was a special teams standout last season recording 12 tackles. While the team is excited about his ability to help the secondary, it is his role on special teams that has Smith particluarly raving.
“Darrell Stuckey is a guy that we knew would be an outstanding player for us, with his versatility to play strong safety or free safety,” he said. “We knew he was a tough, hard-nosed guy, but to be completely honest, we didn’t know that he would be one of our great special teams players. That has been a pleasant surprise. He has been much better than we ever anticipated. He loves his role no matter what we tell him to do, and he’s one of our main guys and stars of our special teams unit. He’s one heck of a football player and I’m glad he’s a member of the Chargers.
A big body in the middle of the defensive line, Thomas figures strongly into the defensive tackle rotation. The 6-foot-4, 335-pound former fifth round pick has six sacks and 34 tackles with eight for a loss over his first two seasons in the NFL.
“Cam is a guy that we loved and watched him in college,” said Smith. “Now he had a reputation, and he’ll be the first to admit this, of being a little on the lazy side, which is why he dropped in the draft where he did. We made a move to get him, and he has been terrific since he’s been here. He’s another one who played a little bit early and we got to see his development. He’s in great shape – the best shape he’s ever been in – and is working hard. He’s had an outstanding preseason and we just think he has a tremendous upside. We’re trying to build a rotation of linemen and not just starters. You need more than just the three guys up front, and we’re really happy with his development.
Last season’s draft picks, including defensive end Corey Liuget, cornerback Marcus Gilchrist, linebacker Jonas Mouton, wide receiver Vincent Brown and cornerback Shareece Wright, are also looking to make that next step into becoming dominant players.
Liuget had a strong rookie season in 2011, appearing in 15 games, 13 as a starter, recording one sack and 26 tackles, including five for a loss. The highlight came in the team’s impressive victory over Baltimore on December 18 when he closed the game out with his first professional sack.
“Corey Liuget is an outstanding talent that we took in the first round,” said Smith. “We think he’s leaps and bounds already better from one year to the next, but again we’ll have to see his preseason action, but we think he will have a big, big regular season and be a regular contributor. I really think Coach John Pagano will utilize his talents in a very positive way. I’m excited to watch what he has planned for Corey.”
Gilchrist served primarily as the team’s nickel corner as a rookie, but stepped in admirably for four starts when Quentin Jammer went down with an injury. He finished the year with 26 tackles and two interceptions.
“Marcus is a very talented guy and another one with great versatility,” Smith said. “He can play nickel, at the corner or at safety. He’s a special teams contributor and an outstanding return man. He’s a guy that we just love all the value he brings to our football team, his development has been right on schedule. He’s still young.”
Last year was a lost season for Mouton, who suffered a shoulder injury in the preseason and missed the entire campaign. For guidance, he has asked fellow linebacker Butler about his experiences coming off an injury that robbed him of his rookie season.
“Mouton has asked me a lot of questions,” Butler said. “What he needed to do, coming off of injury and missing ball for a year. I just told him, you have to stay mentally and physically involved and that’s what he’s done.”
Smith appreciates Butler’s guidance, and believes Mouton can have a similar impact this upcoming season.
“Jonas has been doing great,” he said. “With the situation last year, he is really a rookie. But he’s been a man on a mission. He was very disappointed in losing that year because he’s so highly competitive. He had the corrective surgery and is totally healthy. He’s been outstanding so far. We expect him to be a special teams contributor as well as get involved in the inside linebacker roles we have for him. But he’s another guy that we think is extremely physical, has a little nasty streak and is biting at the bit to get into this NFL action. So we’re excited about that.”
Brown had 19 catches for 329 yards and two scores as a rookie, and thus far in training camp has made great strides in becoming a major contributor to the offense. He led all players with four receptions for 81 yards and a touchdown in the preseason opener.
“Vincent Brown is a real talent,” said Smith. “What we loved about him is the same thing we see today, which is incredible hands and great ability to catch outside the frame of his body. We call it his catch radius. And he’s been a man on a mission also. The advancement that he has shown in the little time since he’s been here is phenomenal. He’s another one who is a true professional and works hard. He wants to be the best and he’s had an outstanding preseason. I know some of the fans have probably already seen him play in the early part, but we think he has a big upside and he will be a major part of our offense for Head Coach Norv Turner and Philip Rivers.”
As a rookie, Wright didn’t see much playing time, appearing in only seven games and making four special teams tackles. But just like Brown, he has had a stellar training camp which carried through to the preseason game vs. the Packers, where he forced a fumble on a kickoff return and had great coverage on a two-point conversion attempt to help seal the team’s victory.
“Shareece Wright came in at the exact same time Gilchrist did, and they’ve developed together,” said Smith. “He’s a guy that is also very versatile and is a very tough-minded guy. He’s a special teams contributor and we think that he has a bright future in that secondary role, probably on the outside first before we would move him inside.”
Listening to Smith talk it is clear that the future is not only bright, but it is right now for the Chargers.