COSTA MESA, Calif. — The Chargers held their 11th practice of training camp Wednesday at Jack R. Hammett Sports Complex. They were back in pads after Tuesday’s unpadded practice.
Here are my notes, takeaways and observations.
Physicality picks up in 1-on-1s
With the pads back on, the Chargers held one-on-one drills for the first time since Friday. I watched the running backs take on the linebackers in pass protection/pass rush. This was one of the most physical and chippy periods of camp so far. And it makes sense considering all the young players in these two position groups with something to prove, between Joshua Kelley, Isaiah Spiller, Larry Rountree, Kenneth Murray, Daiyan Henley and others.
Day 11. Pads back on. pic.twitter.com/mOQX9kxnpF
— Daniel Popper (@danielrpopper) August 9, 2023
Spiller told me after practice that the trash-talking between the two position groups started during warmups Wednesday. Practices are, of course, planned in advance, so both sides knew they would be drilling pass protection and pass rush during the one-on-one period. Spiller said the running backs came out with “a little fire” as a result. It showed.
The tenor of the five-minute period changed noticeably about halfway through. Kelley matched up with Henley. Offensive assistant Tom Arth took the snap, and Kelley charged at Henley, delivering a vicious blow in the hole that knocked Henley to the right. Henley recovered and tried to continue his rush. Kelley then reset and hit Henley again, knocking him off his path. Running backs coach Derrick Foster was very pleased with the rep, and Kelley gave Henley a bark after the rep was over.
The intensity only elevated from there. Kelley was up again three reps later. This time, he met Murray in the hole and again initiated contact, forcing Murray to spin wide.
The linebackers responded. Spiller matched up with Eric Kendricks, who won to the inside on a swim move. Spiller is very patient as a pass protector, and he showed this earlier in the period when he stood up Blake Lynch. On the Kendricks rush, Spiller did well to sustain the initial rush. But a step to the outside gave Kendricks a path on the interior.
Then came the Kelley-Henley rematch. The Chargers raved about Henley’s violent play style and physicality after they drafted him in the third round in April, and that was on display on this rep. Henley came flying through the hole and drilled Kelley, knocking him back five yards. Kelley tried to reset but Henley kept driving forward until the whistle blew.
“Our coaches tell us, the linebackers, not to bull rush, work a move,” Henley said .”But then you have guys like me. I’m a little hard-headed. When I get a chance to go get some contact, I’ll go get it. Things got chippy from there. Good competition. That’s all that was.”
The period ended with some drama. Murray matched up against Rountree. At the snap, Murray came on a dominant bull rush and drove Rountree back into Arth, who had to bail out of the pocket. This was Murray’s best rep of the period.
Rountree asked to run it back. Murray agreed. The two then met in the hole in a violent collision. Murray fell to the turf. Rountree walked over and started dancing in front of Murray.
“Just going out there and competing no matter what,” Spiller said to the mindset for the running backs. “You win, lose or draw, just compete.”
Murray wanted to run it back again. But the horn blew to end the period.
“I can’t wait until our next day in pass rush,” Henley said. “It’s going to be another banger, for real.”
Rookie receiver Quentin Johnston was back on the field Wednesday after missing the previous two practices with an illness. He was very active in team periods. There were exceptional plays. There were not-so-exceptional plays. And I thought this practice provided a good example of how expectations should be framed for Johnston this season.
Johnston is an outrageously explosive athlete in all areas of the field. He is going to make some jaw-dropping plays. That is pretty much a guarantee. But, like any rookie, he is also going to make mistakes. And it is important to keep that in mind when projecting what he can provide the Chargers this season and how he fits into the wide receiver room.
Wednesday’s practice really illuminated that point. Johnston was working with Justin Herbert and the first team in a “got-to-have-it” period — all third and fourth downs. On a third-and-5, the offense set up a bubble screen to Johnston on the outside left. Johnston had a blocker in front of him and would have likely gained a first down if he made the catch. But the ball slipped out of his hands.
Johnston had a chance to try and corral the juggled ball. Instead, he slowed down, as if the play was over. A defender came through and knocked the ball to the turf for an incompletion.
On the next play, a fourth down, Herbert faced pressure off the edge from rookie Tuli Tuipulotu. Johnston was running a comeback route to the left side against Michael Davis. Herbert threw to Johnston amid the collapsing pocket. Johnston slowed down coming out of his break. That gave Davis the window to jump in front and pick it off. Johnston did not contest Davis on the pick despite being in range to do so.
Not even five minutes later, though, Johnston showed exactly why the Chargers are so excited about his potential.
The first-team offense was facing the second-team defense in a move-the-ball period, starting at their own 35. On first down, Herbert dropped back on play action, and Johnston came wide open over the middle of the field on a deep in-breaking route. Herbert hit him, and Johnston carried the ball deep into plus territory.
After an Ekeler rush on the ensuing first down, Johnston found the end zone on second down. He beat cornerback Cameron Brown off the line and created separation down the left sideline. Herbert dropped a gorgeous throw into Johnston’s waiting arms, and Johnston took it the rest of the way for the touchdown.
we love this song pic.twitter.com/AQ1e8TaAst
— Los Angeles Chargers (@chargers) August 9, 2023
The Chargers drafted Johnston in the first round to spark the offense with these kinds of explosive plays. He has shown he can do that. The team is hoping the refinement, mentally and physically, will come with more reps and more coaching.
“Like any player on our team, we expose him to a lot of football during training camp,” offensive coordinator Kellen Moore said of Johnston. “Every day, there is something new. The wheels are always turning.”
The Chargers will also more specifically define Johnston’s role once they get into the regular season.
“As we get closer to games and, certainly, the regular season, we start building out roles and packages that they can focus on,” Moore said when asked of Johnston. “Allow them to still play fast and play with all of the talent that they have.”
News and notes
• Chargers who did not practice Wednesday: DL Sebastian Joseph-Day, WR John Hightower, DB Kemon Hall, K Dustin Hopkins, WR Darrius Shepherd, LB Nathan East
• DL Otito Ogbonnia, who is on the PUP list as he works his way back from a knee injury that ended his rookie season in 2022, made an appearance on the rehab field. He joined fellow defensive lineman Austin Johnson, who is also on PUP while rehabbing a season-ending knee injury. Both players went through some agility work.
• The Chargers focused on the “middle eight” situation during the majority of their 11-on-11 drills Wednesday. The “middle eight” refers to the last four minutes of the first half and the first four minutes of the second half. Their got-to-have-it period was starters vs. starters. The “middle eight” 11-on-11 periods featured the starting offense against the second-team defense and the second-team offense against the first-team defense.
Coach Brandon Staley tried to structure the period to resemble game action, simulating special teams snaps in between the drives. The second-team offense got the ball first with a little over four minutes remaining in the second quarter. This drive ended in a three-and-out after a Joey Bosa sack. After a simulated punt, the first-team offense took over. This possession ended in that Johnston touchdown. Then came a simulated halftime and a kickoff to open the second half. The second-team offense got the ball. Easton Stick drove the unit into plus territory, but a Morgan Fox sack set the offense behind the sticks. A Scott Matlock pressure on third down forced an incompletion and a simulated punt. Herbert then led another touchdown drive, capping this one off with a touchdown to Gerald Everett. After a simulated kickoff, Stick’s next drive was a three-and-out. Khalil Mack got home for a sack on third down. This was a successful “middle eight,” as the starters added 14 points to their lead to close the first half and open the second half.
(Top photo of Quentin Johnston: Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images)
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