RB Darren Sproles (Harry How/Getty)
The Bolts will challenge the Dallas Cowboys this Saturday at Qualcomm Stadium marking their first preseason game. With training camp winding down, the line-up has begun to fall into place. Jaime Cattano takes a closer look at five players to watch during the battle which might also provide an even closer glimpse to the Bolts regular season arrangements.
1. QB Philip Rivers will face live competition for the first time since undergoing offseason ACL surgery. While participating in all of training camp, Rivers appears to be fully recovered. Having logged in hours rehabbing his knee as well as hours in the training room, the coaches have recognized his increased arm strength.
Whether Rivers is throwing a deep pass or being doused with defensive pressure, Rivers shows poise and accuracy. During training camp, he continued to connect with WR Chris Chambers mimicking their connection seen last season.
While Norv Turner has yet to determine how much Rivers will play against the Dallas Cowboys, he is pleased with the production Rivers has displayed.
"He's making great progress. Obviously, we're being very careful with him and limiting some of the things we're asking him to do."
As Rivers shows unyielding commitment to become a solid threat against any team, Turner has also noted his amped-up talent.
“In this day and age, with all the different zone blitzes and all the different rushes and all the guys reaching and knocking the ball down, he keeps his accuracy. He can throw around people and he can throw over the top. He can mix up the release to help him perform.”
While Rivers may be sidelined to ensure not to infringe on a full recovery, anticipate backup signal-callers Billy Volek and Charlie Whitehurst be summoned onto the field.
2. LB Stephen Cooper faces a four-game suspension to open the season so look for Derek Smith to be on the field Saturday night in preparation for Cooper’s absence. While Cooper has been taking most of the first-team snaps during training camp, it is imperative for Smith to get the live game experience wearing a Bolts’ helmet as he will likely fill Cooper’s starting slot during his suspension.
Entering his 12th season in the NFL, Smith spent the last seven years playing for the San Francisco 49ers posting more than 100 tackles five times. He clearly has the experience the Bolts need.
Smith has made a striking impression during training camp making plays all over the field with the second-team defense displaying his natural field instincts. With Smith obtaining extensive game time against the Cowboys, he will only better acclimate himself to the team so he can focus on making a solid impact during the regular season games.
3. Chargers first round pick, CB Antoine Cason, might be called upon more than anticipated. Cason has marked an outstanding performance during training camp showing tight coverage, even marking several interceptions and pass deflections. While he is expected to be at the nickel back role on passing downs, Cason has also worked in with the special teams unit.
While Cason still needs more experience processing the defensive schemes, he might get thrown into the mix regardless of his comfort level. Although no official word has emerged, starting CB Quentin Jammer appeared to suffer either an ankle or foot injury during Wednesday night’s practice. If Jammer does need time to mend an injury before regular season kicks off, the rookie will have the opportunity to start this weekend against Dallas.
4. C Nick Hardwick is expected to miss the season’s first month after undergoing an offseason foot surgery and Cory Withrow and Jeremy Newberry are predicted to carry the load. While Cory Withrow took over for Hardwick for the last four games last season, the addition of two-time Pro Bowler Newberry has threatened Withrow from resuming that role this season.
From training camp observations, Newberry appears to be taking most of the reps with the first team materializing as the front-runner to start against Dallas. But just to keep the line-up in question, Turner chimed in offering a different view.
“Newberry and Withrow are rotating, where one guy goes with the starters one day and the other guy goes with the starters the next day. We’re getting them both experience and, if Nick is not ready, both will have the appropriate experience.”
Newberry has had limited time to learn a new offense and it hasn’t helped that he has been held out of some practice to allow his rusty knees a break. Regardless, OG Kris Dielman is encouraged with Newberry’s presence on the field and ability to hold up the front line.
“He gets after it. He’s not scared to pick up here and there. He wants to win. Probably nobody is going to outwork him across from him.”
5. While Ladainian Tomlinson isn’t expected to participate against Dallas, the loss of Michael Turner gives Darren Sproles the chance to shine. Sproles consistently impresses with his road-runner speed and, even though the shortest guy in the NFL at 5’6’’, he has the power and quickness to hit the hole then shift into another gear with one swift movement.
During last Saturday’s practice at Qualcomm Stadium, Sproles raced 90 yards on a punt return for a touchdown. Sproles has also demonstrated reliable ball protection whether cutting up the seam or swiftly finding the edge to gain yardage. Turner has full confidence in Sproles’ ability to handle the running game.
"Darren proved to me in the last seven or eight games (last season) that he can be a guy that can have an impact on the game and can have an impact on every game. That's our job as coaches to do that. You give him the opportunity and it's not going to happen every week but he certainly is a guy that can change games."
The Chargers second draft pick Jacob Hester has also been working in the rotation with the first team on both running plays and on special teams. Hopefully, the two can hold down the fort while L.T. takes a break.