Chargers anemic return game

The San Diego Chargers have made a concerted effort to improve their team this offseason. While the team may still take time before it is ready to compete in the AFC West, the foundation has been set. Fans have to be pleased with the new kicking game that Nate Kaeding will provide but what about the anemic kickoff return game? Will an undrafted free agent be the one to make an impact or will the team turn to the past?

Two players, with kick returning roots, were signed as undrafted free agents by the Bolts.

Wes Welker is said to refuse to fait catch punts. He simply does not believe anyone can tackle him, halo rule or no halo rule. In fact, Welker has not flayed an arm in the air since his sophomore season at Texas Tech.

"I kind of just started and I decided with myself that I am not going to (call for a fair catch)," Welker said with a shrug.

Welker became known as the super utility man at Tech, similar to a baseball player that will work in every position. Of course, he was an instant fan favorite because of his hustle and versatility.

Welker set an NCAA record for punt returns touchdowns with eight over the course of his career. The 5-foot-9 returner/wide receiver also set school, Big 12 Conference and NCAA Division I-A career records with 1,761 yards on 152 punt returns (11.6 avg.) along with his eight touchdowns, topping the previous national marks of 1,695 yards by Vanderbilt's Lee Nalley (1947-49) and seven scores by several players. Only Vai Sikahema of Brigham Young (153, 1980-81, 84-85) had more punt returns in Division I-A annals … His 5,730 all-purpose yards broke the old school career record of 5,156 yards by Donnie Anderson (1963-65).

The funny thing is Welker does not have 4.3 speed like you might imagine. He is instead a 4.6 guy who relies on his agility and moves to make plays. It was enough for college, but will it traverse to the pro game?

In 2001, Luke Powell was a First-Team All-American at the return spot after averaging 16.0 yards per punt return, second best in the nation. One year later, injuries haunted the mighty mite. An ankle injury hampered Powell all season and perhaps his confidence never regained its luster.

Powell has recorded 47 punt returns for 533 yards and one touchdown, putting him sixth in the Cardinal record book in punt return yards and punt return average. He has caught 83 passes in his Cardinal career for 1,560 yards and 11 touchdowns and his 18.8 yards per reception average is the fourth best all-time on The Farm. He has 16 receptions of over 30 yards in his career, three over 75 yards, two from 60-69 and two more from 50-59.

Powell is the definition of home run hitter. At 5-foot-8, Powell is known for his elusiveness, likely running through the legs of would be tacklers. His speed is not 4.3, ala Santana Moss, but he does provide a spark. The former baseball player has heart and a solid demeanor, but is confidence where it needs to be as he heads into a NFL training camp?

"It is kind of hard," Powell says of the job, returning kicks, he has made look easy. "You just have to have a feel for what's in front of you and being able to see peripherally – different color shirts."

So will it be Mr. Versatility, also known as "The Natural" Wes Welker, or will it be the former All-American?

The other contenders will surely have their say. Leon Johnson was signed to a one year deal this offseason with kick returning in mind. The problem is molasses runs quicker than Johnson between the hashes. Doug Chapman has previously returned kicks and could be an option. Eric Parker may keep his punt return spot as a known commodity, but will the team try and keep him off the unit in order to protect his health? And then there is Michael Turner. The fifth round selection in 2004 has also returned kicks and he could be viewed as a roster saver.

The bet is one of the two will actually get a shot at supplanting the veterans. The team needs a spark plug on the return game and the recent success of shorter returners could bode well for the undrafted. Teams seeking the next Dante Hall or Chad Morton will surely seek out Welker or Powell as the correct option. The key is giving them a chance to shine and not putting them out to pasture before they even have a chance.

Denis Savage can be reached at

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