If I were a carpenter...

If the Chargers want to continue their remarkable success from last season, they will need to get some big production from some small-school players. The trick for the team is going to be deciding just how much responsibility to place on the shoulders of players who only a few years ago played at proverbial bo-dunk universities.

Cornerback Drayton Florence is expected to be a full-time starter this season, but just two short years ago he was fine tuning his game at Tuskegee University. A fine university, no doubt, but unlikely to earn the moniker cornerback-U anytime in the near future. If Quentin Jammer continues to struggle in his attempts to earn shutdown-status, the team must decide if Florence is ready to man-up on the opponents best receiver.

Other former small-schoolers may be receiving increased responsibility as well. hails from little-known Arkansas- Pine Bluff, and he may have a shot to win the starting right tackle job this season.

His promotion would be a gamble, given the steady albeit unspectacular play of
Shane Olivea last season. However, Van Buren's rare combination of size and agility provides him with ample and nearly unlimited upside. The team will have to make a choice here too; they must decide between a good player in Olivea and an unproven but potentially great player in Van Buren.

If Jesse Chatman is cut, which is possible given the Chargers selection of a running back in each of the last two drafts, Michael Turner may see his workload increase significantly. Turner is a power-back from Northern Illinois, and he has the speed and vision to merit additional carries this season. At five-foot-ten and 237 lbs., he has the size to handle a heavy workload that Darren Sproles simply does not possess. That means if LaDainian Tomlinson gets dinged again, defenses may get a heavy dose of number 33.

Then there's Vincent Jackson, the team's second-round selection, who will be used as a goal-line receiver and possibly more. Jackson is coming fresh out of Northern Colorado, so he will have to adjust to a whole new brand of competition and a vastly increased game speed. However, he has incredible size at six-foot-four and 241 lbs., and his speed, hands and body control are excellent also. The temptation to place him and Antonio Gates in the lineup at the same time may be so great that it could force the Chargers to rush him onto the field as soon as possible.

"It was great fit for me," Jackson said of attending Northern Colorado. "It worked out. I was probably 6-3, 190 pounds when I came out of high school. I wasn't as developed as I am now. I was more of a raw athlete; a basketball guy. When I got to college I found the weight room and got some coaching."

There are others being counted on to carry their success from small schools to the big time. Ryan Krause was drafted from Nebraska- Omaha, and the team knew he would be a project when they selected him. Not only was he changing competition levels, but positions as well. He was moving from wide receiver to tight end, and everyone knew the transition would take time. Well apparently by week 17 of last year he was ready, as he scorched the Kansas City defense for 81 yards and a touchdown on only five catches. If he is even half as game ready as those numbers suggest, then he too will push for increased playing time.

Lastly, there's Mike Scifres. The Chargers drafted their punter out of Western Illinois, and he excelled last season after manning the bench most of his rookie year. As long as he doesn't regress, the team should be fine at that position for years to come. His net average of 38.4 yards per punt was best in the AFC, as was the total of 29 kicks downed inside the twenty.

Unfortunately, Scifres is the exception. Most of the Chargers small-school players still have a lot to prove. There is no doubt the team would be happy to just maintain the status quo after last season's stellar record, but the fact is that may no longer be possible. These players may have to transition from projects to producers in a hurry.

It has long been A.J. Smith's philosophy that the team will draft players from any school, saying that the team will find good football players no matter where they play. Well the truth is it does matter where they play. The smaller the school, the greater the learning curve. Smith drafted each of the aforementioned players, and now Coach Schottenheimer must give them a chance to play. No one yet knows if A.J. Smith's small-school studs theory is pure genius or a pure waste of draft picks, but this season the team will find out.

The Chargers are just too deep now. They can't continue to save roster spots for player grooming and pet projects. The lifeline of any good team is the draft, and these players are about to get pumped into the system. The team must rely on these players this year, and it appears they are indeed set to do so. Last year, Smith was named NFL executive of the year by Pro Football Weekly, the Pro Football Writers Association and FoxSports.com. But it will be this year's team, one littered with his small-school selections, that will truly show the world the full extent of Smith's football acumen. Here's hoping he turns out to be as smart as the rest of the media have already proclaimed him to be.

Michael Lombardo can be reached at Lombardo@SanDiegoSports.net


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