After biding his time as a backup and on special teams, Matt Wilhelm was a first-teamer last year.
But a strained calf interrupted his opening month, forcing him to miss nearly three games -- the Chargers went 0-3.
"With my injury and the team being down, I was down," Wilhelm said. "I felt I could help but I couldn't come back. That wasn't fun."
The good times were to come -- save that bruising afternoon in Minnesota when Adrian Peterson set the NFL rushing record.
"After that hiccup in Minnesota, from there on we were on a roll, myself included," the 6-foot-4, 245-pound Wilhelm said. "We started to zone in and understand each other as a defense and that was what gave us great success."
The Chargers are expected to be great again this year and make a beeline for Tampa, Fla., and the Super Bowl.
If so, Wilhelm will be front-and-center.
"He is a tremendous athlete," said veteran Carlos Polk, Wilhelm's backup. "And he's more comfortable in there.
"That first year starting he was thinking and learning what he should do. Now he knows what he is doing and learning what offenses throw at him. He's a very smart player, as well as being a good athlete."
Wilhelm was oh-so-good -- despite missing nearly three games -- to finish second among Chargers with 144 tackles, with three interceptions and a sack.
But what Wilhelm, a six-year pro, holds dear is the experience. The knowledge that comes with being a starter and what is expected over a demanding season that tests a man's body and soul.
"I understand now what it takes to be a professional," he said. "I thought I knew, but it's the week in, week out rigors you deal with mentally and physically that are ever-changing. And it's something you need to quickly adapt to."
CAMP CALENDAR: Team breaks training camp on Aug. 23.
--The Chargers' "Monday Night Football" game against the visiting Jets on Sept. 22 just got a lot more interesting with Brett Favre joining the team. "He's one of my favorites, if not my favorite, of all time," quarterback Philip Rivers said. "I remember when he retired, a piece of me felt a little sick about it, like, 'Golly, he's not going to be out here.' I don't remember the NFL too much without him out there. I'm obviously still a fan of his and I would love to continue to watch to see him play."
Running back LaDainian Tomlinson said he's not surprised about Favre's change of heart.
"Obviously he still wanted to play, and who can fault him for that?" Tomlinson asked. "There has been a lot of players that said they were going to retire and don't retire ---- this is just how it is. If he still wants to play, he should play. Whenever we say we are done, we want to be done. But sometimes it is easier said than done. But for the most part, when the player really wants to be done, he is done."
Tomlinson has said he doesn't anticipate playing past his contract, which expires after the 2011 season. "Sometimes situations happen where, who knows, you are forced to retire or forced out of the league," he said. "But hopefully that won't be my case. It don't matter how great you are, at some point it's time to move on, time for the organization to move on. It happens to everybody at some point. We all have to look within ourselves and say, 'Is it right for me to be playing or time to retire?' I could easily see myself in that position some day."
--Marques Harris might get a sack this preseason but don't look for him to flip out over it. "I probably won't do it," Harris said. "I don't want to get hurt before the season starts." Harris' signature move after a sack is a back handspring, which has landed him on countless highlight reels.
But Harris is more bent on production than gymnastic gyrations. That's why these summer games are his chance to reach for some future gold.
His contract is up after this season, so the 6-foot-1, 231-pound Harris' urgency is real. "They are very important games obviously for a guy like me -- an undrafted free agent -- going in my fourth year," said Harris, who had 19 tackles and 1 1/2 sacks last season. "I've got to continue to prove myself, show what I can do and how I can help this team out."
He plays behind "Lights Out," but starter Shawne Merriman said Harris, who has 5.5 career sacks, is the real deal. What amazes Merriman is Harris slipped through the draft. "It's weird because you get a chance to see guys every day and you think, 'how the hell did no one know about him?"' Merriman said. "He is a small guy, and this league is built on height, size, speed and measureables. But those measureables don't look at the player and that's what he falls under -- being a player." Any chance Merriman might ditch his "Lights Out" sack dance and try one of Harris' flips? "Nah," Merriman said. "I would end up tearing up my labrums."
--QB Charlie Whitehurst turned 26 on Wednesday -- one wonders if among his wishes was climbing up the depth chart from his No. 3 position. "I joke a lot that I haven't been hit in two years," Whitehurst said. "That's a positive you can take out of it." Whitehurst saw time in Saturday's game against the Cowboys, completing five of seven passes for 40 yards in the Chargers' 31-17 victory over the Cowboys. "Though it's been a while for you, it still kind of comes back to you quickly." After last season, it appeared Whitehurst might be the team's backup quarterback this season. But Billy Volek, the second-stringer who engineered the game-winning drive in a playoff victory over Indianapolis, re-signed with the Chargers instead of leaving as a free agent. That assured Whitehurst would again be No. 3 for a third straight year. "That's not my ultimate goal, for sure, in this thing," Whitehurst said. "You don't want to sit and back up and be the third-team guy your whole career. I don't know if patience is the right word here but you just keep pushing and hopefully you get an opportunity."
--Remember when the Chargers had one of the worst secondaries in the league? That's changed with improved play from a revamped secondary; defensive backs accounted for 22 of the team's NFL-leading 30 interceptions last season. "We're up there," said safety Clinton Hart, contending that the Chargers should be ranked among the NFL's top secondaries. "We're respected now, but we have to (maintain) it. Last year was last year, and we have to do it all over again. What we did last year doesn't matter." The emergence of cornerback Antonio Cromartie is cited as the biggest reason for the secondary's improvement. Cromartie led the NFL with 10 interceptions in his second NFL season, despite starting just eight games.
--Air Coryell? Not quite, but it's no lie the Chargers are deep at wide receiver. Receiver Chris Chambers thinks he's part of an underrated receiving group, particularly if second-year players Craig Davis and Legedu Naanee emerge as capable backups behind Chambers and Vincent Jackson. "I think our receiving corps is really good and has the opportunity to be up there with the elite receiving corps in the league, whether people think it or not," Chambers said. "Our offense is pretty complete with our tight ends and young guys like Naanee and Craig Davis." The veteran Chambers lends a hand to the young receivers. Something that hasn't gone unnoticed from a real Air Coryell alum, receivers coach Charlie Joiner. He praises Chambers and Jackson for helping Davis and Naanee improve their understanding of the nuances of being an NFL wideout. "Chris and Vincent are the two best leaders in the group," Joiner said. "They are doing an excellent job of helping the other guys."
--With a date inside at St. Louis looming, coach Norv Turner went with Philip Rivers a little longer than most expected. "I was going to play him a half," Turner said. "He needed to play enough. That was our plan coming into this game. We go to play on (Field Turf) next week, and I don't know how much I want him to play." Rivers is bouncing back from offseason knee surgery. "The knee felt fine," Rivers said. "Even (when I got sacked), there was nothing to it."
--Inside linebacker Anthony Waters played in his first game in more than a year. He spent last year inactive for 16 games as he continues to come back from a knee injury.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Those defensive ends are getting faster, stronger, quicker. I got to stay on top of my game." -- LT Marcus McNeill, on his quest to improve on his first two NFL seasons, both of which landed him in the Pro Bowl.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
--DT Jamal Williams had both knees cleaned out in the offseason and he has practiced sparingly. But in a good sign for the Chargers, he played in the exhibition season opener.
--WR Vincent Jackson has had a stellar camp interrupted by missing more than a week of practices with a tender hamstring. He is expected to practice leading up to the Rams game.
--DE Luis Castillo didn't test his balky back against the Cowboys. The team keeps saying it is nothing serious.
--K Nate Kaeding worked hard on giving his right kicking leg more strength this offseason. It was evident when he nailed a 52-yard field goal and had ample length on his kickoffs.
--C Jeremy Newberry played well in a starting role. That could be the veteran's position come the regular-season opener as the availability of Nick Hardwick (foot) is questionable.
BATTLES OF THE WEEK:
Antoine Cason vs. Cletis Gordon for the nickel starting CB job -- It looks like this remains a spot that is Cason's to lose. So far, so good for the team's top pick as it tries to blend more youth into the secondary. Cason got beat a play or two Saturday night, but he also had a great break-up of a pass. Gordon was OK, but it still seems Cason has the inside track here.
Jacob Hester vs. Darren Sproles for backup RB -- The two players combined for 23 yards on 13 carries in the first half of Saturday's 31-17 victory over the Dallas Cowboys in the exhibition opener against most of the Cowboys' starters. It didn't clear up much of the mystery of who will get the first call behind LaDainian Tomlinson. But it did show both offer different looks. Hester is more of the bruiser going between the tackles, while it's important for the shifty Sproles to find the edges. This situation could become more muddled when Andrew Pinnock is a full-go from his knee surgery. "It's early," coach Norv Turner said. "I just want those guys to play. I want them to have a chance to compete and play. They're all good players. This is a great experience for them."
PLAYER OF THE WEEK: RB/FB Jacob Hester -- The Chargers snagged Hester in the third round, eager to plop him in the lineup quickly. It looks like they'll be able to do just that after an impressive showing in the exhibition opener. Being used as a tailback more than a fullback, Hester shows he has a nose for the goal line as he scored two touchdowns from and one and two yards. Hester is going to fill the short-yardage role this season, while likely also blocking for LaDainian Tomlinson. "I have plenty of things to work on," Hester said. "There were some holes I probably should have hit and some cuts I should have made, but it felt good to get out there and get my feet wet."
ROOKIE REPORT: CB Antoine Cason continues to shine. ... RB/FB Jacob Hester is proving he can block and run -- he's that versatile. ... RB Marcus Thomas rushed for 48 yards on 13 carries against the Cowboys. ... FB Mike Tolbert, an undrafted free agent, is opening some eyes. It'll be tough to crack the depth chart, but it's possible he could land on the developmental squad.
INJURY REPORT: TE Antonio Gates (toe) is running with the trainer in drills, but still appears to be weeks away from practicing. ...
RB LaDainian Tomlinson has a groin injury but it's not serious. ...
C Nick Hardwick (foot) could miss the season's first month. ...
WR Vincent Jackson (hamstring) could return to practice on Monday. ...
C Cory Withrow (groin) should be back soon. ...
DE Luis Castillo's back is not considered serious. ...
Also ailing are: OT Marcus McNeill (neck stinger); WR Legedu Naanee (groin); FB Andrew Pinnock (knee); and WR Billy Pittman (hamstring).