Ryan Mathews said he's been pretty good about keeping the jitters in check as he worked his way through training camp. But the former Fresno State star said being in the NFL smacked him with full force on Saturday when the Chargers prepared to face the Bears.
"Right then it hit me," Mathews said when he entered the stadium. "My nerves kicked in and I took a lap around the field. I then went inside and put my gear on and threw up."
He's not the first to be queasy over the responsibilities which come with being the lead back, as a rookie, on a team with Super Bowl dreams.
"It's humbling and I'm grateful for it," Mathews said.
He didn't little to dispute the Chargers' thinking in moving up the draft board to snag Mathews 12th overall. He rushed nine times for 50 yards and opened some eyes in doing so.
That is once his midsection was at ease -- to a degree.
On a running play in which he follows pulling left guard Kris Dielman, Mathews beat him to the hole.
"He told me to slow down a little bit; that was just the nerves," Mathews said. "I was just trying to out there too fast."
Mathews admitted he didn't get much sleep the night before the game. But he looked fresh against the Bears, in particular on a first-quarter run.
Mathews took the handoff and was met near the line of scrimmage by Pro Bowl linebacker Lance Briggs. It appeared Briggs was set to wrap on Mathews when Briggs was brushed aside by the powerful Mathews. He quickly got into the secondary where he collected 18 yards before being brought down.
"That was impressive," quarterback Philip Rivers said. "And he showed some speed right there."
Mathews is learning quick. Not only is he picking up the nuances of being an NFL back, he is saying all the right things.
When others were gushing about his running, Mathews was pointing toward the big uglies.
"Without those big guys," he said of the offensive line, "I would be in a whole lot of trouble."
But it's clear Mathews knows what he is doing. Once he dialed it down a tad.
"It was all fast at first then it started to slow down a little bit," Mathews said. "But it is going to take some time."
Among the things the Chargers like about Mathews is his work-ethic and lack of ego.
"I got a lot of work to do still," he said. "I got to work on everything."
CAMP CALENDAR: Aug. 20: Walk-through at Marines Corps Air Station Miramar. Aug. 22: Players off. Aug. 23: Final training camp practice.
Linebacker Shawne Merriman ended his baffling boycott of training camp when he reported to the team last Friday.
Merriman, who signed his one-year tender for $3.168 million, wasn't staying away for more cash. Instead he stated that he wanted assurances that the Chargers would not trade him and that they would build the defense around him.
He got no such assurances on both fronts and finally decided he wasn't getting much accomplished sitting at home after skipping 21 practices.
"I'm happy to be back with my teammates," Merriman said. "I got a chance to speak with them over the phone, but I'm glad to be back in the building with them.
"It was time for me to come in and get ready. You can't show up before Game 1 or Game 2 and expect to play at a high level. The only way to emulate game speed is to play football."
This is a critical year for Merriman, who was once one of the most disruptive defensive players in the league. He collected 39.5 sacks in his first three years as he was selected to the Pro Bowl in each of those years.
But he only played one game in 2008 after delaying knee surgery. Then last year, slowed by the knee and a foot injury, he had but four sacks.
So with four sacks in two seasons, it's clear Merriman needs to prove himself to get a big contract next season. That contract is unlikely to come from the Chargers.
Merriman has long got under the skin of general manager A.J. Smith. he certainly didn't enhance his reputation in Smith's eyes by not reporting with the other veterans.
"We're happy to have Shawne back," Smith said. "He's an excellent player. We're ready for him to get back to work."
Linebacker Stephen Cooper, the Chargers' top tackler last year, said the moment had arrived for Merriman to slap on the pads.
"It was time for him to come in," Cooper said. "Everybody wants to get paid and everyone wants a big contract, but you can't get one sitting at home. You have to be out there performing and be on film in order to get paid.
"People are always asking whether his knee is healthy and whether he can be as productive as he was in the past. We all know he can do it, but he has to prove it on the field."
Admitted Merriman, "I didn't accomplish anything at all (by not reporting). I always knew that I was wanted here, which was one of the biggest reasons for getting things sorted out. You hate to deal with the whole business part of it, but I'm so glad it's behind me and I can go out and play.
"Everybody's on the trading block. It was more a question of it being talked about so much. This team has bigger fish to fry, and that's playing the Kansas City Chiefs in a month. At no point in time did I want conversation about my future to be above the team, and at some points (last season) it got there. That's what I wanted to stay away from."
--Even with return ace Darren Sproles sitting out the first exhibition game with a bum shoulder, coach Norv Turner was impressed with his special-teams play. "I don't see why we can't be one of the top three or four special teams in the league," he said.
--K Nick Novak was brought into camp to save the wear and tear on K Nate Kaeding's leg. But he is making the most of his chance and could land with another team. Novak hit two of three field goals Saturday, clicking from 48 and 43 yards; his miss was from 41.
--Among those getting the loudest pregame cheers Saturday was rookie RB Ryan Mathews.
"It was an unreal moment," he said. "I didn't think they were going to do that the first time."
--The Chargers' pass rush was potent in the first game. Five Chargers had sacks, led by Antwan Applewhite with two. "It changes the game," said DB Donald Strickland, who had a sack. "It gives the offense the ball more so they can score. It definitely gets in the quarterback's head. He might rush a pass, he may hold onto the ball a little longer. He's trying to get it out faster, so now he's making more mistakes when we're in his face."
--The Chargers welcome the Cowboys in Saturday night then it's off on the road. Not only are the Chargers final two exhibition games at New Orleans and San Francisco, but four of their first six regular-season games are away from Qualcomm Stadium.
--Despite OLB Shawne Merriman being a workout maniac, ILB Stephen Cooper said being in football shape is a different animal. "It'll take him a few weeks to get it back," Cooper said. "Training on your own is a whole lot different than being here. I think the coaching staff will gear towards his strengths and keep him from having to think about certain situations. He's going to be an impact player for us. Missing time this early won't change that."
--The Chargers lone touchdown reception against the Cowboys came courtesy of Legedu Naanee. He is running with the first team with Vincent Jackson out of camp. "I can't say that what we're seeing from him is new," QB Philip Rivers said. "He's been a quality receiver for some time now, and it's clear that he's coming into his own."
--Turner wasn't please the team had 10 penalties agaisnt the Bears, nine coming in the first half. "We're doing some things at the line of scrimmage and trying to get ourselves into the best play situations and we have some work to do," he said.
--The exhibition game was blacked out on local television when it failed to sell out 72 hours before kickoff.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "You trust what your eyes see and I've seen him for three months now and he has all the things you need to be an outstanding runner." -- Coach Norv Turner on rookie running back Ryan Mathews.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
The big news of camp -- well until Marcus McNeill and Vincent Jackson return -- is that three-time Pro Bowl linebacker Shawne Merriman has signed his tender and is back practicing.
Merriman was held out of Saturday's exhibition season opener but could play Saturday when the Cowboys visit.
--LT Marcus McNeill, who declined to sign his restricted free-agent tender offer, was sent a letter to report by general manager A.J. Smith. His agent, Alvin Keels, confirmed the letter and said it doesn't change his client's stance of not reporting.
--WR Vincent Jackson is in a similar situation as McNeill. He was also sent the letter to report but doesn't plan to.
--With Shawne Merriman returning, it could cut into the reps Larry English was getting; English is having a solid camp.
--With ILB Donald Butler being lost for the season with an injury, it solidifies James Holt's chances of making the team. It helps that Holt has been active in the coaches' eyes as well.
--LB Ali Highsmith was cut to make room for Merriman.
BATTLE OF THE WEEK: Antonio Garay vs. Cam Thomas vs. Ogemdi Nwagbuo for starting DT.
Garay earned the top spot on the depth chart, but when the game came it was Nwagbuo trotting out wit with the first team. Garay showed well last year when coming aboard and is having a good camp. Thomas, a fifth-round pick, isn't shy about throwing his 6-foot-4, 335-pound (at least) frame around. Nwagbuo was a life-saver last year when Jamal Williams went down in the season-opener. But it seems Garay has wrestled the starting position away. This battle is worth watching the entire camp.
OTHER BATTLE FRONTS:
Josh Reed vs. Buster Davis for the No. 3 wide receiver spot.
Reed is the consummate pro, able to run exact routes and rely on his steady hands. Davis is a former first-round pick the Chargers keep talking up -- but he can never stay out of the trainer's room. The Chargers would prefer Davis starts showing something for what they have invested in him, but after one catch Saturday he was again being attended to by the medical staff after a taking a shot to his hip when returning a punt.
Richard Goodman vs. Jeremy Williams for kick return duties.
This spot will end up in the hands of Darren Sproles. But with his slight size and the Chargers trying to save him for the base offense, they might lean on someone else to occasionally field kickoffs. Goodman has had his share of drops in camp at wide receiver, but he ripped off a 51-yard return. And Williams, who is having a sensational camp, contributed a 34-yard return.
PLAYER OF THE WEEK: OLB Brandon Lang -- This undrafted rookie out of Troy continues to get noticed with a string of solid plays in practice. But really, it's what you do on game days -- especially for a long shot to make the roster -- where you must shine. Lang got his first big chance Saturday and didn't disappoint by blocking a punt out of the end zone. Lang's chances for making the team improved when Donald Butler, a third-round pick, landed on IR during camp. If making the team, Lang will likely contribute on special teams considering how loaded the Chargers are at his position.
ROOKIE REPORT: RB Ryan Mathews averaged 5.6 yards on nine carries in his NFL debut. ... SS Darrell Stuckey has been slowed with a groin injury; he is still fighting for a starting job. ... DT Cam Thomas continues to push for playing time on running downs. But he applied good pressure on a pass which was picked off by Paul Oliver. ... QB Jonathan Crompton was intercepted in his NFL debut; he's having a mediocre camp.
--RB Darren Sproles (shoulder) should return this week.
--OLB Larry English (foot) should be a go this week.
--LT Tra Thomas (knee) is still likely another week from returning.
--ILB Brandon Siler (ankle) will return to practice this week.
--SS Darrell Stuckey (groin) should return this week.
--G/C Scott Mruczkowski (ankle) could be down another week.
--T Nick Richmond (knee) is day-to-day.
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