Over 19,000 fans came out to Qualcomm Stadium to watch the Chargers take the field Saturday, making it the biggest turnout ever for a Chargers practice. The fans showed tremendous support, and the players graciously signed as many autographs as they could before taking the field. Once on the field, the real show started; whether it was Vincent Jackson catching a beautifully thrown 50 yard touchdown pass from Philip Rivers, or Shawne Merriman blowing up his blocker and causing havoc in the backfield, there were enough big plays on all sides of the ball to keep the crowd entertained. While Fan fest is in many ways an exhibition put on for the Chargers faithful, there were some intriguing items of note in the players' performances. In part one of our Fan Fest notes, we'll focus on the defense:
With Eric Weddle out of practice nursing a bad headache, a hole opened up at free safety where a number of guys rotated in. Undrafted rookie free agent CJ Spillman got lots of reps at free safety, a position he played extremely well at Marshall University. In fact, it was a bit surprising to see he go undrafted. Spillman has legitimate sleeper potential - he could develop into a nice player.
Speaking of developing players, Paul Oliver had a great practice, coming down with two interceptions. He jumped a Vincent Jackson route in the endzone and made a play reminiscent of his game against Denver last season. Paul Oliver is an interesting guy; he was a supplemental draft pick of the Chargers in 2007 as a cornerback coming out of Georgia. He left school early and is still young, but he is making the transition to safety for the Chargers and has had to learn a lot about the position. He's a great natural athlete with good bulk. The Chargers are still trying to figure out how best to use him, as he is versatile and has natural playmaking ability. I asked Coach Turner about Paul Oliver's role on the team and coach explained "Paul Oliver is doing a nice job. He's working at free safety. We're getting our guys ready to play four preseason games and then we'll evaluate them."
Cletis Gordon had a fantastic day, picking off both Volek and Rivers. He's got great length and tremendous speed. He's a threat to score when he gets the ball in his hands.
Antoine Cason also came down with an interception and impressed the crowd with his return for a touchdown. "Antoine is a good player. It's his second year, and I expect him to make a big jump from year one to year two," said Coach Turner. Cason will continue his role as the third cornerback, and provides excellent insurance behind Antonio Cromartie and Quentin Jammer.
Rookie Kevin Ellison is a tough, physical player. He and center Scott Mruczkowski got into each other's faces after a play. The coaching staff likes to move Ellison around the field; he plays close to the line, he'll slide inside,and he'll drop back into coverage. He's not the fastest guy on the team, but he has excellent football knowledge and knows where to be to make the play. I don't imagine he'll earn a starting job right away, but he'll likely be the Chargers' starting Strong Safety in 2010.
ACTIVE FRONT SEVEN
The Chargers front seven stayed after it all practice long. Vaughn Martin was getting excellent penetration from the right defensive end spot. He's battling Jacques Cesaire for playing time. Martin hustles to the ball and does an excellent job pursuing the play, even if it's going away from him. The weight he lost is paying dividends as he's moving around with better quickness and has been able to increase his stamina. Martin's got excellent power and his technique is improving each day. He plays a little high at times, but he'll learn how to play with better leverage by watching Jamal Williams. Already, Martin has displayed some great hands, including a powerful slap move.
Ex-Chicago Bear Ian Scott did a good job of getting his paws up and batting down a Billy Volek pass. He's an incredibly large man, who'll best fit as a rotational guy. He's a load, but he gets tired if on the field for too long.
As a whole, the linebackers made a ton of plays. Whether it was Shawne Merriman repeatedly getting into the backfield, or Kevin Burnett moving around comfortably in coverage, this year's group of linebackers should be a greatly improved unit from a year ago. Merriman was moving around great, and was obviously holding himself back. He popped Jacob Hester on one play, but it would have been a much bigger collision if Merriman was going more than only about 60%.
Entering his second year now, Eric Bakhtiari has been a nice surprise thus far. Bakhtiari is a good pass rusher with a frame that could support more bulk. He's probably a year away, as he's a little light for the position, but he'll open eyes with his burst and length.
Brandon Siler plays with intensity, and is a dominant run stuffer. He fills the hole and is eager to meet the ball carrier. Siler's a little stiff in the hips, but he's best when he keeps the play in front of him anyways. I think he continues to play a pivotal role on special teams and in goal line situations. There was a funny moment at practice where he was chasing after Darren Sproles near the sidelines. Siler got a hand on Sproles and pushed him out of bounds, directly into Chargers General Manager AJ Smith!
Stephen Cooper has a tapped up left ankle, but it doesn't appear serious.
Larry English was not practicing, as he nurses a tight hamstring.
Part two of these Fan Fest notes will be published tomorrow, so come back and read about the Offense and Special Teams!
Labels: Chargers Practice 2009
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