Trip to the Trenches – Offensive Line

Pining for more information on camp? We have your coverage. In a special edition over this weekend Jeff Sturgis takes a look at our offense and defensive lines as we head into training camp. Based on his first hand knowledge watching the team practice he is able to give us a side of things not seen before – with a promise of more to come in training camp…<br><br>

Coming off the last day of mini-camp and getting ready for training camp, there is probably no part of the offense that has more interesting possibilities than the line. Offensive Line

Last season's injuries to both starting tackles and loss of the starting center sent the warning bells off in Murphy Canyon. Hudson Houck did a masterful coaching job keeping the line glued together so that the offensive did not implode, but it was clear that depth at the tackle positions and upgrade for one of the guards was high on the shopping list. Justin Peelle's near appearance last season should demonstrate how desperate the offensive tackle situation looked. Ed Ellis never heard a snap count he could not beat, so his departure along with Sammy Williams simply provided some needed jersey numbers.

When Cory Raymer went down with a season ending injury last year, the annual dark cloud formed over Qualcomm earlier than usual. Jason Ball stepped up and played like a veteran center in his rookie year. The analogy of finding a needle in the haystack really does not do it justice. The situation is more like looking for a needle in a haystack and finding the farmer's daughter. Having a UDFA come in a play all season at center as Ball did sets up an interesting problem for the Chargers now that Raymer is fully mended. Ball did not participate in mini-camp because of a knee problem, so he was limited to running laps around the field. Vaughn Parker was also out with a shoulder injury. Raymer worked with the first unit during both sessions of mini-camp, and Bob Hallen worked with the second unit. Look for Hallen to exit the roster given all the better talent in front of him. Ball should be the starter and Raymer as a back up leaves the Chargers with a solid answer at center this year.

Not counting Solomon Page, or Raymer, there were seven players working at OG in mini-camp. Toniu Fonoti worked both the morning and afternoon sessions at LG, with Big Mac at LT. Fonoti was moving well, with quickness and smooth lateral movement, which is remarkable to watch given that he has a body type similar to Fred Flintstone. Be very glad you do not pay this man's grocery bill. There has been discussion about the possibility of Kelvin Garmon and Raymer starting at OG and having Fonoti play a back up role. That is not the way things looked in mini-camp. There were two stand out linemen during the drills Houck had the squad run, namely Page and Fonoti. Both displayed their raw power, and blew most of the other players back all day long. Out of the new guns at offensive guard, Phil Bogle looks like he can handle the step up from New Haven. Kevin Breedlove and Tony Terrell need to have big training-camps to vie for the musical chairs at the interior.

Pages' desire to play under Hudson "Hud" Houck along with his tremendous size and tenacity suggest that it is going to be difficult to deny him a position somewhere amongst the starting five. Page has upside to still improve with his favorite line coach and he has stated without reservation that he is planning on starting at the right tackle position. Vaughn Parker is going to be heard from in that debate, but Page's versatility to play both tackle and guard bring depth and possibly a long-term solution for the Chargers once Parker retires. Vaughn Parker is not in retirement mode, and he is an anchor for a line that has changed more gears than Mario Andretti. Eyes will be focused on where Page works at in training camp to see if he is playing guard or tackle. Arguments for placing him at either position are compelling.

Damion McIntosh, "Big Mac", was a solid performer on the left side the last two seasons, and last season before his injury. Mac is very focused and ready to prove he is a long-term answer at OT. The upside to all of the competition at OT yields McIntosh, Parker, and Page working for two starting tackle positions. Any way you slice it, Hudson is systematically assembling a massive, young, and talented offensive line, much in the same mold he cast in Dallas. The Chargers now have starter back-up depth at OT, which was sorely needed last year, and can now field an offensive line that averages 320 pounds of fighting fury.

While Hudson Houck is dialing in the starting line, there is some serious offensive talent to add depth. Dralinn Burks from Kansas State tips the scales at 314, and has earned the largest hair award in mini-camp. Courtney VanBuren is the only player on the roster to actually lay claim to being bigger than Fonoti, arriving from Arkansas-Pine Bluff at a svelte 350 pounds to complement his 6'5" frame. Van Buren looked very good in mini-camp and brings a nasty attitude, which is always welcome in the trenches. He will make the roster and is definitely worth watching. Mel Kiper loves to overuse the "too angular" description for linemen in the draft that cannot bend at the knees. Van Buren is not angular. He was getting great leverage and displaying sound technique in camp. Alex Tuttle rounds out the tackles, and is probably a less likely prospect.

During mini-camp, the first line featured McIntosh, Fonoti, Raymer, Garmon, and Page going left to right across your radio dial. The second line had Van Buren, Keathley, Hallen, Terrell, and Bogle. Breedlove was rotated in at guard. Look for some change ups first day of training camp in Carson. Ball should be back at center working with the starters, and Parker should be back at left tackle.

Both Van Buren and Bogle provided some insight beyond their physical presence. Van Buren's WWF scene in mini-camp with Scott Pospisil was documented, and bringing that type of attitude is exactly what Houck is looking for. Count Bogle in that same camp with an attitude. During the final scrimmage of the last day of mini-camp, Bogle was playing at left tackle. The offense was driving and threatening to move deep into the gold zone. When coach Marty Schottenheimer blew the final whistle, Bogle was irritated and made the case to push on until the offense scored. He was pushing his counterpart all around the field and that desire to win and keep working may separate Bogle and keep him firmly on the roster.

The key metrics for the offensive line that is significant upgraded this year are:
• Starting caliber depth at center
• Back-up depth at both tackles
• Experience at both guards
• Huge draft and UDFA talent to vie for back-up positions
• Entering a second season for Ball, and Fonoti, and crew under Houck

Look for improvements from this offensive line this year and some serious battles to make Houck's final five.

Jeff Sturgis can be reached at sturgisjg@netscape.net

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