Young Guns Fire at Minicamp

The Chargers finally got into their minicamp sessions, a bit later than usual. The drills figured to be a preview of what should be one of the most hotly contested competitions this summer: finding a starter at strong safety.

The team was hoping Kevin Ellison, a starter in the final nine games last season, could build on that foundation. And it wanted to see what Darrell Stuckey, a fourth-round pick, could do.

And while Stuckey was there when the minicamp curtain was lifted, Ellison wasn't.

Ellison was absent by the request of the Chargers after being arrested last week for suspicion of possessing a controlled substance.

Ellison was apprehended after some 100 Vicodin pills were found in his car after being pulled over for a traffic violation in Redondo Beach, Calif. Because of that, the Chargers told him not to come to camp.

"This thing happened a couple days ago, and I haven't had time to sort it all out," coach Norv Turner said. "I called and asked Kevin to stay away. We have a week off from our offseason program coming up, and that's when we'll find out a little more about the situation."

Not good, if you're Ellison in that he was basically given a time out while others vie for his position.

Steve Gregory and Stuckey got most the looks with the first team.

"It's time for me to get better, and I'm going to take advantage of every rep I get regardless of what's happening behind the scenes," Stuckey said. "I need to perform and do whatever I'm asked. All that other stuff doesn't matter and doesn't change what I'm trying to do here."

Stuckey was drafted because the Chargers weren't all that thrilled with Ellison's play. And now with his other issues, his shot at making a better impression on the Chargers' brass has been derailed.

"(It's) not a good thing," Turner said of Ellison's absence.

Stuckey, the former Kansas star, is opening eyes with his play.

"I like what he does, especially in regard to his athleticism," Turner said. "He has a lot of work to do in terms of understanding what we're doing on defense, but I think he's going to get that done."

Ellison was yet another starter not going through the workouts.

Wide receivers Vincent Jackson and Malcom Floyd, left tackle Marcus McNeill and linebacker Shawne Merriman have yet to sign their restricted free-agent tenders and are boycotting the workouts. Tight end Antonio Gates was also missing from the first practice, as he was in North Carolina to have his sore foot examined.

But he was expected to participate in the later practices as Turner downplayed the Pro Bowler's health status.

"It's nothing major, and nothing we're overly concerned about," Turner said. "We'd like to take care of it now so it doesn't turn into something lingering."

PLAYER/PERSONNEL NOTES

--Ryan Mathews is glad to have that behind him.

Mathews, the ex-Fresno State running back the Chargers spent a bundle to acquire, went through his initial workout during the team's minicamp at Chargers Park.

Mathews had to skip the offseason training sessions because of school. But coach Norv Turner was upbeat that Turner had been in a book of a different kind -- his play book.

"He retained the stuff (from rookie orientation) extremely well," Turner said. "He's very, very natural in what he does. He's got great vision. I'm excited just to get going and our offensive line is excited. We're going to be a better running team and I think that will help our entire team."

While the Chargers were woeful running the ball last year, it's clear where they thought the problem laid: with aging running back LaDainian Tomlinson.

So general manager A. J. Smith engineered a draft-day deal to move up and snag Mathews. Smith also didn't draft any offensive linemen, giving additional credence to the thought the problem was with the guy running the ball and not those blocking for him.

Enter Mathews and it was clear he was aware of the expectations. At one point, quarterback Philip Rivers slid over to the personable rookie and told him to take a deep breath.

"He knew I had a little bit of jitters, but he told me just relax and have fun," Mathews said.

Rivers gave the rookie a thumbs up after giving him the eye-ball test.

"The first thing that stood out to me was how big he was," said Rivers, who was among the NFL's elite passers last year despite a running attack he could seldom lean on. "He's definitely got really good size," Rivers said.

Rivers was just as impressed as what the 6-0, 218-pound Mathews was seeing.

"You see the vision," Rivers said. "It comes natural to him."

But no matter the size, speed or skills, dipping your toe in the NFL for the first time -- even at a minicamp -- can be overwhelming. And that was true for Mathews.

"I wasn't expecting how intense it was, but I'll get used to it," he said. "My mind's going 100 miles an hour with all the different plays and the pace. I'm just trying to stay mentally focused."

He's learning what everyone has been telling him: the NFL is a long way from the Western Athletic Conference in which Fresno State plays in.

"It's faster pace, bigger dudes," Mathews said. "The veterans out there know what they're doing so you have to be more on your game, but it's fun. I really liked it."

The Chargers like what they have in Mathews. Turner has stressed that for the Chargers to go where they want to go -- the Super Bowl -- they need more of an offensive balance.

One of the defenders chasing him thinks Mathews can supply just that.

"He looks like a real good, versatile back," linebacker Stephen Cooper said. "He looks like he's already been in the league the way he's making jump cuts. He's picking up protection with the help of Philip. He's a real good back that we look forward to seeing on Sundays."

--While other tendered restricted free agents haven't inked their deals and are skipping the team's minicamp, another one is here working: DL Travis Johnson, who came over in a trade early last year. "Signing was just a formality," Johnson said. "I like playing for this organization, and I was looking at the big picture. I want to be here beyond this season. They showed a lot of faith in me by offering the tender, something they didn't have to do. Hopefully, they see the upside, they see my hard work and they see that I want to be here."

--So much with tagging off on the players. WR Buster Davis was involved in a collision with FS Eric Weddle in one session and did not return later in the day. He had been catching the ball well, then got knocked sideways.

"Buster got run into pretty good," coach Norv Turner said. "We work hard at making it a noncontact session, but unfortunately, every once in a while there's a collision."

--With WRs Vincent Jackson and Malcom Floyd, restricted free agents boycotting the minicamp, others are getting additional reps. "They're getting opportunities and getting thrown right in there whereas normally they may be watching," QB Philip Rivers said. "They're getting a lot of great work and it'll do nothing but help them and us."

--K Nate Kaeding, who missed three field goals in the team's three-point playoff loss to the Jets, returned to practice for the first time since injuring his groin at the Pro Bowl practices.

--OT Brandon Dombrowski is running with the first unit, as Jeromey Clary continues to work on the side.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "I really think our guys have put the time in over the last eight to 10 weeks, and it shows in the way they're moving around and what they're doing. I think we're ahead of any point we've been at this point since I've been here, and I'm excited about what our guys are doing to get ready for the season." -- Coach Norv Turner, after watching minicamp drills and how his players responded.

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