A six-pack of the top lessons learned from the Chargers two-month offseason program:
1. Pick Happy Bolts– If you heard Chargers Park get loud in recent weeks, odds are it was because a Chargers defensive backs made a game changing type of play. The energy and enthusiasm in the secondary was palpable. It's no coincidence that their enthusiasm was contagious and led to even more interceptions. According to Defensive Backs Coach Ron Milus, it has all been by design:
"We all have to get excited when our players make a play. When you make a play, that's like we all made that play. We made the analogy to being like the Golden State Warriors. When one of the Warriors makes a three pointer, it seems like every player on that floor thinks they can make a three pointer. So if we make an interception, everybody thinks they can make an interception. So if we build up that type of spirit that the Warriors have, where if they hit a three, there is about to be about six more of them and you don't know where they are coming from. If we can get that with our guys making a pick, everybody should be excited about it. They come in bunches."
It's also why Head Coach Mike McCoy says the secondary is the position group that has grown the most this offseason:
"It's the defensive backs. You see the passion and energy they are playing with, the way they are playing for one another and the excitement… I really like the way the defensive backs have worked together and been more vocal this year as a unit. If you are here at practice, you see the energy and excitement they are playing with. This is a group that has come together nicely."
2.Benjamin's Speed is Legit– The Bolts signed Travis Benjamin in March to inject explosive speed as a wide receiver and in the return game. While they expected him to show off his jets during the offseason program, he proved to have even more blazing speed than they might have anticipated. Philip Rivers called Benjamin the fastest player he's ever thrown to, which is a sentiment shared by Wide Receivers Coach Nick Sirianni:
"There's no doubt that he is ultra-fast. I have never been around a receiver that fast….He is lightning fast. When you are that fast as a wide receiver, it opens things up so much for you and the other receivers (underneath) because defensive backs are scared to get beat deep. They are told, you maybe can make (a big) play, but just don't get beat for a touchdown deep. Well, everyone around the NFL respects his speed, and he can get in and out of breaks, so he can get open on a wide variety of routes. And he can open things up for other receivers as well."
With Benjamin counted on to play a big role in the kicking game as well, Special Teams Coordinator Craig Aukerman lights up whenever talking about the team's new weapon:
"When you say his name, my face lights up. We are very excited about him, but he just can't show up and make plays. The players around him have to get better, too. We expect a lot of good things out of Travis, but we expect the players blocking for him to perform better than last year. It's not just on Travis; it's on everyone else, too."
3. Pair of Underdogs Turn Heads– Undrafted free agents are the ultimate underdogs, and wide receiver Tyrell Williams and safety Adrian Phillips are two that defied their odds as rookies to earn a place on the Bolts. Entering their second and third respective offseasons with the Chargers, each player stood out over the past few weeks. Williams picked up where he left off at the end of last season as he continues to stretch the field with his size and speed, earning high praise from Philip Rivers:
"He's one of those guys that you saw flashes of (last year that) this guy could be something. You saw all those flashes. Not comparing the exact styles or anything, but he reminded me (of) Malcom (Floyd) when Malcom got here and we came here together of 'Gosh, was that Tyrell again?!' (It was) once in a while throughout camp, and then there he is again. Gosh, he played at a small school but if he could come along, he could have a chance. And I think he would even tell you that he's still coming along. But it does look like he's going to have a chance to make the team and help us. We'll see as he continues to progress, but he's come a long way since last year."
Meanwhile, Eric Weddle's departure gave Phillips a chance to prove his worth, and he made the most of the opportunity. He had two interceptions on the final day of mini camp, including a pick six. As a result, it's no surprise to hear what Defensive Coordinator John Pagano had to say about the young safety's performance:
"You see the growth. You see the development. You see the story of not only an undrafted (player), but a guy who had to try out. What he's done and what he's accomplished to be able to get the opportunities that he's had, and he takes advantage of all those opportunities. And you see it. He gets around the football a bunch. The interception in the last game of (last) year was something big for him, but it's carried over into this offseason of the amount of plays that he's making. So we're pleased."
4. Henry Lives Up to the Hype– Hunter Henry was universally regarded as the top tight end prospect available in this year's draft, and the Chargers made him the first one taken off the board with the 35th overall selection. It didn’t take long for Henry to make his presence felt. Arriving barely 24 hours before the start of rookie mini camp, the tight end earned rave reviews after his very first practice. Overall, the 21-year old has shown soft hands and a willingness to mix it up as a blocker according to Tight Ends Coach John McNulty.:
"If anybody was ever born to be a tight end, it's Hunter Henry. His dad played it at Arkansas, and he looks like one when he just walks in the room. He's been training for this his whole life… Obviously he's talented, but he's a very mature, levelheaded, humble and hardworking guy with good football understanding. You can tell he's done this his whole life with how he trains, practices and watches tape. I think he understands how good he is and how good he can be. I don't think he wants to waste it"
5. Te'o Takes Leadership Role– Manti Te'o was known as one of college football's top leaders during his tenure at Notre Dame. Showing a fair amount of leadership skills over his first three seasons in San Diego, now the inside linebacker feels primed to take the bull by the horns in 2016:
"I have a bigger leadership role this year, and it's the role I'm most comfortable in. I look at myself as the voice of the defense, and I think I'm viewed that way. This is going to be my fourth year, and everything has come full circle. I'm more of an inclusive type of leader, and I like to make sure everyone feels important. They all have special roles to the success of our team. For me as a leader, my job is to make sure they know that. To make sure all 11 links on defense are playing as one and for each other."
As a four-time team captain and a respected voice in the locker room, Darrell Stuckey knows firsthand what it takes to be a leader. He believes Te'o possess the necessary qualities in droves:
"The biggest thing about being a leader is you have to lead by example, and Manti does that. You have to lead by example louder than any words. People want to see if you are a person to be modeled after. You have to look at your peers as your brothers, and you have to put them before yourself. Your love and joy for them has to be greater than your pride. As a leader, you have to be accountable for your actions and for theirs. Regardless of what happens, you hold everyone together. You don't shun somebody away. And Manti has all those qualities."
6. Gordon Finishes Strong– Off a disappointing rookie season and rehabbing a knee injury that ended his year prematurely, Melvin Gordon has been in the spotlight all offseason. He offered a blunt assessment of his first year in April, explaining how he has something to prove. The running back took things slow early on, and was limited mainly to individual period until recent weeks when he increased his work load. Offensive Coordinator Ken Whisenhunt was one of many who lauded Gordon's performance in recent weeks, believing it bodes well for his sophomore campaign:
"He definitely finished strong. He finished on an upbeat. You could see him get more comfortable with the runs we're asking him to do. Part of it is what does he do well? Early in this period, he wasn't doing a whole lot. He was just doing the individual. I think part of it for him was getting it through his mind that he was ready to go. But probably over the past two weeks I've seen some really nice cuts, some explosive runs and hopefully that trend will continue."