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Offensive line stable entering ’11

Posted Jun 27, 2011

San Diego’s five starters are so familiar with each other that getting assembled to play a game may not take long. All five projected starters have played at least two full seasons together.

SAN DIEGO – Offensive line coach Hal Hunter can stand at the front of his position’s meeting room and point to where every player congregates.

That’s because the same offensive linemen have inhabited the Chargers’ meeting room for years.

“Kris (Dielman) and Marcus (McNeill) sit up there. They sit next to each other. This is going on their sixth year sitting next to each other,” Hunter said. “Nick (Hardwick) sits back here with Tyronne Green.”

Sure, sixth-round draft pick Steve Schilling will have to find a place in the room, as will any potential undrafted free agents. Practice squad holdovers Nick Richmond, Eric Young and Ryan Otterson also are expected back.

Offensive linemen have perhaps the highest potential for development at the NFL level because of the importance of technique, and the Chargers have a collection of young linemen they’ll try to bring along.

But last year’s starting five and several key backups have stayed together since 2009, a significant factor within a positional group defined by collective play.

“We’re to the point now where we’re coaching things that we wouldn’t normally coach in a first- or second-year player. It’s like the advanced course,” Hunter said. “The least-experienced guys, Louis Vasquez and Tyronne Green, (could) fight for the right guard position and they’re going into their third year. Scott Mruczkowski as a backup and the rest of the starting five as it projects to be, they’ve all been together since 2006.

“It’s a real thing of continuity. They know what I’m going to say before I say it. We couldn’t physically (play a game), but mentally we could go play a game Sunday if we had to because that’s the level they’re used to operating together. With free agency, to keep the nuts and bolts of the offense together like we’ve been able to do is really, really hard.”

Along with Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates, the line has been the steady quotient despite a changing cast of skill players in the last few seasons. Tasked with protecting a Pro Bowl quarterback and plowing ground for one of the NFL’s most exciting offenses, San Diego’s offensive line could continue to feature the same parts.

Left guard Kris Dielman will enter 2011 searching for his fifth consecutive Pro Bowl season and has two years left on his current contract. Left tackle Marcus McNeill signed a long-term contract during last season that will keep him in San Diego through 2015. Nick Hardwick started all 16 games last season at center. While right tackle Jeromey Clary is not under contract for 2011, he played every offensive snap last season and the team has expressed positive things about him. Mruczkowski also is not under contract for 2011, though he could return to the Chargers.

“We need continuity because those five guys work as one,” offensive coordinator Clarence Shelmon said. “Dombrowski, Green and Mruczkowski (have) played a considerable amount of time when injuries rear their head.

“The continuity helps us not only in the run game but in the passing game because that unit requires a ton of communication. The more the guys play together the better they get.”

Unlike the group of young linemen on the roster, the developmental curve for San Diego’s starters isn’t likely to skyrocket suddenly. Basics are as natural for them as brushing their teeth. But Hunter still finds things for them to fine-tune.

“The developmental curve starts to level out a bit. You’ve got to continue to try to improve players, continue to take it to another level mentally and physically, but the increments are smaller and it takes a lot more work to get more production out of them,” Hunter said. “These guys that have been starters for a long time, it’s the advanced, advanced course on all the little things.”
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