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Rookie Minicamp Screen
An Inside Look at Virtual Rookie Minicamp
25 rookies logged on last week for a crash course on their new lives as Chargers.
By Hayley Elwood May 14, 2020

In any other year, rookie minicamp would have gone something like this: players fly out and take up residence at the team hotel. Then over the course of three days, they'd attend meetings, have practice, speak at media availability, eat at the facility, and have more meetings and walk throughs.

But here in 2020 amidst the COIVD-19 pandemic, NFL teams like the Chargers got creative, and shifted to a fully virtual program.

"It's different because you just don't have the actual, physical touch of shaking a hand or hearing a laugh in a close presence," Arthur Hightower, Chargers Sr. Director of Player Engagement mentioned. "But overall, I thought it was pretty good. It was unique, but it gives real creativity to some of the things you can do.

"These guys go through a lot to get on the field. They're just like any other 21, 22 or 23-year-old in their first job. They have to go through some onboarding and we're the people here to do it."

So what was it like for the newest members of the Chargers to partake in virtual rookie minicamp?

Here's what some of them had to say.

Zoom Zoom Zoom

With practice not an option, the Bolts held rookie minicamp on Zoom. That meant football and player development sections were all held online and accessed through the comfort and safety of every individual's home.

Hightower said there were a couple ground rules. One of them? Cameras had to be on at all times – aka, the virtual equivalent of being present in a classroom.

For the players, despite these meetings being new concepts, they felt for the most part that they went really well.

"It was awesome," fourth-round running back Joshua Kelley said. "It was cool to see your position coach and meet all the other guys and be in special teams meetings. It feels good to get started, but minicamp was like, 'Wow, we're finally getting in touch with everybody and making sure we're getting started!'"

"It went really well," added Jeff Cotton, a wide receiver out of Idaho and one of the undrafted rookies the team nabbed. "It was really my first time on a Zoom call or doing Zoom. I found it really productive. The coaches are all good guys and we have a good group of rookie receivers you can tell are willing to learn and just be good players at this level. It's been real fun."



Online Classes 2.0

"With these virtual meetings, what they are giving me is an opportunity to learn formations, learn the scheme and learn exactly what’s going on around me to get those mental reps." Running back Joshua Kelley

In talking to Kelley, Cotton as well as former Liberty defensive end Jessie Lemonier, they all had previously taken online classes in college.

Having that previous experience of online learning has been beneficial, especially when using the work ethic they utilized in college online courses towards holding themselves accountable for the work they're putting towards learning the playbook.

"At the beginning, it's more tough, like you can't really get a feel of the movement parts and get lined up how you want to," Lemonier mentioned. "But, I started to get it once I started studying plays and understanding."

"Wide receivers coach Phil (McGeoghan) is always saying it is a little tougher just because we can't physically get out there and get physical reps and run the plays," Cotton said. "But, we're getting a ton of mental reps and doing a lot more studying is something I've had to do personally."

Kelley is soaking in all he can just like he used to do in online classes.

"As a football player, especially playing running back, one thing I would love to have, not necessarily need but love to have, would be those live reps," he mentioned. "You can get a chance to feel the offensive linemen's blocking and get a chance to feel the scheme. With these virtual meetings, what they are giving me is an opportunity to learn formations, learn the scheme and learn exactly what's going on around me to get those mental reps."

Player Development

Along with the football meetings, the 25 rookies all attended player development sessions held by Hightower and team clinician, Dr. Herb Martin. Some even featured special guests like general manager Tom Telesco, president of football operations John Spanos, and veteran players including Austin Ekeler, Isaac Rochell, Drue Tranquill and Jason Moore. Sessions focused on anything from the culture of the team to advice and guidance on navigating through their new lives as professional football players.

According to Hightower, these meetings are critical in helping build camaraderie. Especially in these times where the roster is spread across the country and physically meeting up isn't an option. The player development sessions also educate the rookies on the philosophy of the team as it's important for them to feel connected to their new home.

"At some point, we're going to be in the building, and you want guys to feel familiar," he said. "I think the team wants to feel that familiarity from when they step into the building to when they step on the field."   

These meetings clearly impacted the rookies. 

"They were so incredible," Kelley said. "Getting a chance to know Arthur and Herb and have one-on-one meetings with them, it's been extremely helpful. The panel (of veterans), guys come on and give us their wisdom and experiences of being a rookie and telling us what works in this league and what doesn't. I think a lot of us rookies had questions about what the culture is, what the game is like, how do you survive, how do you make the team. It was great to get a chance to hear from them."

For some of the undrafted rookies like Cotton and Lemonier, hearing from Moore and Ekeler was extremely helpful as Hightower said the messages shared "resonated" with those who watched. Making a roster as an undrafted free agent is hard enough, but trying to make your mark virtually is no easy task. That's why it was special to have these vets speak to their experiences, despite some differences.

"It makes it easier," Lemonier said. "Some people have a tough time going to a new environment and adapting, and this really helps knowing there are people in similar situations who made a good living off where they started from and kept working. With their information, you felt like you were welcomed to the team."

"Even hearing some of their stories, especially with Austin Ekeler, he said to use this time to block everything out and study, study, study," Cotton mentioned. "I really took to that and that's what I'm doing. We didn't have (on-field) rookie minicamp and we can't be there physically, so I'm really trying to go into camp with no room for error. I'm trying to work to be perfect."



What's Next?

"Doing all this virtual stuff, you might not feel part of a team. But with all the meetings we’ve had, everybody seems like they’re good dudes and willing to help you when you need help. It was awesome." Wide receiver Jeff Cotton

Rookie minicamp may be over, but the work has really just begun for these players.

Hightower is continuing the same rookie program he holds annually, just moving it to a virtual space.

Having had the chance to already meet in smaller groups or one-on-one with these rookies post-last weekend, he's happy with how camp went for the team's newest members.

"One of the comments we went through Monday during our individual meetings was that they really appreciated having John and Tom kick off Saturday's meeting," Hightower said. "John shared his family's vision that is upheld within the organization about family. Tom echoed that sentiment and also shared a little bit about himself so the guys were able to relate to him. By the time we started our calls Monday, each one of the five guys we talked to all said, 'Man, it just felt like a family.' They appreciated that and that starts from the top."

As for the players, they're looking forward to when they can convene at Hoag Performance Center and put what they've learned virtually to the field. 

But for now, they're doing what they can to continue finding their way and leaning on those who came before them for guidance.

"I've been talking to Austin and Justin (Jackson) and I've reached out to them," Kelley said. "They've been giving me so much advice which is awesome. Obviously right now, you're meeting guys on the internet, but it'll be dope to see them in person and get a chance to know everybody."

"Doing all this virtual stuff, you might not feel part of a team," Cotton questioned. "But with all the meetings we've had, everybody seems like they're good dudes and willing to help you when you need help. It was awesome."

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