Special Teams Coordinator - Assistant Head Coach George Stewart is never one to mince words.
With 40 years of coaching experience under his belt including 30 in the NFL, Stewart cut his teeth under the likes of Lou Holtz, Chuck Noll, Bill Walsh, George Seifert and other legendary football figures.
So, when he says there’s going to be fierce competition every step of the way on special teams, you best believe that’s going to be the case.
Still, it's important to note right off the bat that the Bolts’ special teams ended 2019 on a high note.
Michael Badgley authored a historic rookie campaign after taking over as the team’s kicker, while Adrian Phillips earned All-Pro and Pro Bowl honors for his work in the kicking game. In addition, Desmond King emerged as a lethal punt returner, taking home second-team All-Pro honors at the spot after averaging 13.8 yards-per-return highlighted by a 73-yard touchdown.
However, the Chargers are always looking to upgrade every facet of the team, which is why Stewart was his blunt self when explaining his vision for the kicking game.
“We made some changes on our football team this offseason,” he said. “We brought in a new punter and have a new long snapper (on the roster in Cole Mazza). Mike Windt is still on this football team. Competition that Coach (Anthony) Lynn talks about, that’s one of the things in this area that we have in the course of this offseason. With the draft, (General Manager) Tom Telesco did a great job trying to help our special teams with players coming in. Competition is going to be critical. We’re trying to do a great job of bettering our football team from the bottom-up. We made some improvement over the last three years. We’ve had some teams that ranked in the top-5 in this unit and some teams that were ranked in the top-8. We’re trying to improve this area of the football team. Hopefully, we’ll get that done this offseason.”
Clearly, competition is at the forefront across the board in the kicking game.
However, the punter competition looks to be particularly intense.
On Monday, Stewart praised the team for bringing in a couple of young, talented legs at the position, breaking down what he likes about CFL import Ty Long, who the Bolts signed earlier this offseason, and Tyler Newsome, an undrafted free agent out of Notre Dame the team agreed to terms with last week.
“Ty is a right-footed punter,” he explained. “He did a great job in the CFL. You have to imagine, now, that he’s up there kicking in adverse conditions. That’s one thing that — with our schedule when we play some East Coast teams — he’s going to do a great job for us. We have some competition from the young man from Notre Dame coming in (Newsome) as well. (Long) is a strong-legged guy with great get-off. He’s a directional punter, so he does a nice job of putting the ball both to the right and the left. That big field that they have in Canada, it benefits us because he had to kick wider, which would put the ball in the corners for us, in terms of his punts. We’re looking for a big job from him.”
Meanwhile, the Bolts will also take a long look at options at kickoff returner, even though Stewart noted King is the team’s primary option at the moment. That makes sense considering he returned 22 of the Bolts’ 28 attempts a year ago, averaging 23.7 yards per return with a long of 40.
Stewart praised the job King does bringing back kickoffs, but also listed a few other names he’s eager to see back there as well.
“Desmond is our guy as well — but again, you look at the guys that Tom has brought in the past few years,” he said. Austin Ekeler could be back there this year. You look at Detrez (Newsome) could be back there this year. We just (agreed to terms with) a young man, (Jeremy) Cox, who was a great return guy back in college. We’re looking at different combinations, but right now Desmond is that featured guy. He averaged about 23 yards or 24 yards a year ago. The kick return team, I think, was in the top-10 or just barely out of the top-10. He’s done a good job as well.”
While kickers, punters and returners are traditionally in the spotlight when it comes to special teams, you can’t forget the coverage unit. The Bolts were among the best in the league in this area a year ago, paced by Phillips who led the NFL in special teams tackles.
Young players often earn roster spots and see their most extensive action early on based how on they contribute in this phase of the game. To that end, Stewart is enthused by some of the selections the Chargers made in this year’s draft.
While he’s eager to watch them on the field, he highlighted fourth-round pick Drue Tranquill as someone he’s particularly keen on.
“Drue has been on our radar for a long time,” he said. “Again, our scouting department has talked about this young man. They have stayed with him. Of course, not only Drue, but all of the linebackers that came out in the draft. Drue is a Notre Dame guy. I’m a Notre Dame guy, so in terms of having a chance to watch him, he’s a great benefit for our football team. He’s a 6-2, 230-pound athlete that can run. Again, it’s more competition for us to have the opportunity to get better.”