Gartrell Johnson has given the Chargers a lot to like with his performance during the first two weeks of training camp. He's lived up to his self-described billing as a "one-cut-and-go" runner. He's shown a powerful leg drive and low body lean, often knocking defenders back at the point of impact.
However, Johnson has also shown he has a lot to learn. Most importantly, he must exhibit better patience in allowing his blocks to develop in front of him. Right now, he's so concerned with building up a head of steam that he's not slowing down to let his blocks develop in front of him.
"The game is just faster and I just need to be more alert on things like reading the defense and figuring out the keys that rookies will have trouble with or struggle with," Johnson said.
RB Gartrell Johnson
Johnson still has room to improve as a receiver, as well. And although he figures to be used almost exclusively to pound the ball between the tackles, he needs to show the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield if he's to be a viable three-down option.
The man Johnson is competing with, RB Michael Bennett, is not much of a receiver, either, averaging just 1.6 catches per game during his eight-year career. However, Bennett can be counted on when it matters most; his 7-yard reception on third-and-7 in the fourth quarter of the playoff game against the Indianapolis Colts was a key play during that contest.
Johnson must be similarly prepared if he hopes to land the No. 3 running back gig.
"The one thing we tried to have him work on a little bit more here was route-running, because we tried to throw the ball a little bit more out of the backfield," said CSU running backs coach Anthoney Hill. "Depending on what the role is for him there [in San Diego], that may not be much of a factor. Route-running is probably where he needs to keep trying to get better."
The third running back is an important figure in San Diego, especially when the starter is on the wrong side of 30 and the backup weighs just 180 pounds. Because of that, the Chargers are likely to keep both Johnson and Bennett on the final roster.
If Johnson hopes to leapfrog Bennett, he'll have to keep his nose in the playbook, improve his route-running and adapt to the speed of the NFL. If Bennett plans to hold onto his spot, he'll have to prove he can contribute on special teams, which is the only way to justify keeping him active on game days.
Right now, Bennett appears to be doing a better job in tackling his challenge and has a leg-up on the fight for the No. 3 spot. However, Johnson will be given plenty of opportunities throughout the preseason to state his claim in emphatic fashion.
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Michael Lombardo is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America and a long-time contributor to the Scout.com network. His analysis has been published by the NFL Network, Fox Sports and MySpace Sports. He has followed the Chargers for more than 15 years and covered the team since 2003.