Chargers Review: Offensive guard and center

Toniu Fonoti returning from a year on injured reserve, a rookie in the middle after Jason Ball held out from training camp and a veteran newcomer to the left in Mike Goff – there were serious questions on how the middle of the line would fare come opening day.

The drama began during the offseason when Toniu Fonoti missed mini-camp to be in Houston at a weight loss clinic. He followed that up by missing the first day of training camp and the rumors were running rampant. It turns out he had bad information on the start of camp and showed up the next day, in the best shape of his life and ready to go.

Also marring the start of camp was the absence of center Jason Ball, holding out due to a contract dispute as an exclusive rights free agent. Through his agent, Ball expressed a desire for a higher salary and the Chargers would not budge from their initial offer. Head coach Marty Schottenheimer offered the dispute would go unsettled until he came into camp, a move that never happened.

As the team moved closer to the start of the season, Nick Hardwick emerged as the starting center and made his case with tenacious play. That lessened the blow of Ball not showing up.

It wasn't until the middle of September that Ball ended his holdout. A month after his holdout ended, Ball was released. He made it into just two games while Hardwick recovered from a knee injury but when Hardwick returned, Ball was exiled.

When the Chargers picked Hardwick on draft day, many were miffed. No one saw the Jason Ball fiasco forthcoming and questioned the move. It turned out to be one of the steals of the draft.

Hardwick settled in under center and despite a high school and college career that barely spanned three seasons. The checks of the defense fell on his shoulders and he was able to glean information from Goff and left tackle Roman Oben.

"I can read defensive guys a little better than most offensive linemen because I know what they are taught," Hardwick, a former defensive lineman, said. "Maybe it has made me a little more aggressive than I would have been."

Hardwick is a player who still has a lot of room to improve. With a little work on the lower half of his body, he should be able to drive block more effectively and coaching should bring out his ability to pull. He was relegated to short pulls on the inside and was becoming adept at picking up the blitz as the season wore on.

"Nick is one heck of a football player," running back LaDainian Tomlinson said. "To be so young – his mindset - he really just loves the game, has passion about the game."

"Mike Goff and Roman Oben - Father figures for those younger players," quarterback Drew Brees said. "I know Hardwick from him being at Purdue. (Hardwick and Olivea) are Big Ten guys. You know what you are going to get from Big Ten guys."

After a rocky start, Fonoti, a second year player by all accounts, was the best lineman on the Chargers. He was ferocious at the point of attack, driving opponents into the ground and showed his athleticism by getting out in front and piledriving linebackers. He was the only lineman who could consistently pull to the outside and be in position to make a block.

When talking to scouts at the Senior Bowl, many were miffed at his preclusion from the Pro Bowl and were hard pressed to name four other guards in the league who were better than Fonoti in '04.

"It shows you what maturity can do," Schottenheimer said of Fonoti. "He had a very solid year for us as has the entire offensive line."

Fonoti attributed a lot of his success to the man to his left, Roman Oben.

"Roman knows the ins and outs of this game," Fonoti said. "He teaches me as he goes along. I am still learning with him on my left side."

Goff was solid across the board with his run blocking and pass protection. He does not have the agility of his counterpart, Fonoti, but his knowledge of the game helps him close in on defenders and he puts himself in the best position to make a solid block.

Goff, a free agent acquisition, settled the right side of the line and helped out Hardwick on the interior. His leadership traits endeared him to the line and he was often mentioned by the coaching staff as "the glue that kept the line together."

"I think we believed in ourselves all along," said Goff. "When we were 1-2, instead of people falling into the same of old trap of hear we go again, people got mad. We said we can't allow ourselves to fall into the trip of thinking we're a bad team. From that point on, everybody made it up in their mind we were going to be a good team. We've proved a lot of skeptics wrong."

David Brandt was the top backup at center and did a solid job replacing Hardwick in the game he got injured against Tennessee. He also held his own late in the year when he had spot duty. With the solid play of Hardwick, Brandt did not see a whole lot of time on the field but proved he is more than just a substitute teacher.

Converted defensive lineman Kris Dielman didn't have any starts but was on the field in 15 of the Chargers 16 games. When he wasn't playing special teams, he was backing up both guard positions. He had not played on the offensive line until joining the Bolts and the coaches have been happy with his progress.

Joining the club on October 27 was Bob Hallen, one of their top reserves in '03. Hallen brought experience and the ability to play both center and guard to the equation. His veteran presence helped the younger players see success and proved a valuable contributor in the few games he played.

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