First Look at O’Neal: Quick but Needs Work

<i> Times Staff Writer </i>

Football in the Big Eight Conference is as plain as a wheat field. The preferred way to advance the ball is to run. The basic attitude toward the pass is don’t .

The Big Eight is hardly the place you’d go looking for a pass rusher. But that’s just what the Chargers did when they selected Oklahoma State University’s Leslie O’Neal in the first round of last month’s National Football League college draft.

After getting their first look at him in mini-camp over the weekend, the Chargers concluded that he may not make the world forget Mark Gastineau just yet.

“He’s smart and he’ll improve, but he needs a tremendous amount of work,” Coach Don Coryell said. “He’s gotten by on raw ability in college.”


Ron Lynn, the new defensive coordinator, saw basically what he expected in O’Neal.

“He’s very quick,” Lynn said, “but there’s no question he needs work. Coming into the pros is going to be like a whole new language for him.

“The only team in the Big Eight that throws is Kansas, and Leslie probably rushed the passer more the past three days than he did in his career at Oklahoma State.”

O’Neal may take a little longer to become a dominant pass rusher than some fans might have expected, based on all the publicity that surrounded his selection in the draft.

In a sense, the Chargers had history on their side. Despite the Big Eight’s reputation as a running conference, the Chargers weren’t afraid to draft a tight end from Missouri seven years ago, Kellen Winslow. Based on that gamble, they were inclined to try again.

The Chargers, of course, scouted O’Neal thoroughly and were proud of the way they threw other teams off the scent by putting out the word that he had damaged knees. He was timed in 4.7 for the 40-yard dash this weekend, and that’s good for a back, much less a man who weighs 250 pounds.

O’Neal is the name that glitters, but the Chargers also expect help from another rookie defensive lineman, Terry Unrein, who has a bit more experience rushing passers. He played at Colorado State University in the Western Athletic Conference, where passing is not a foreign concept.

As mini-camp made clear, Unrein needs work, too. But he has one quality that is already nicely developed: size. At 6-foot-5, 280 pounds, he will be the team’s largest pass rusher once Earl Wilson gets in shape and sheds the 25 extra pounds he wore this weekend.

“Unrein is quick, and he’s also a load,” Lynn said. “He’s even bigger than he looks.”

Unrein looked pretty substantial, except when he got into a scuffle with rookie offensive tackle Steve Collier, who brings to mind such Charger giants of the past as Ernie Ladd and Louie Kelcher.

Collier, a product of Bethune Cookman College in Daytona Beach, Fla., stands 6-foot-7 and weighs 327 pounds.

Coryell would like to see him smaller, but not much. “Maybe 315,” the coach said, looking ahead to training camp in July. Collier is no cinch to make the team, but he will get a careful look.

The entire team will assemble this weekend for the Chargers’ second mini-camp. Dan Fouts will come out and throw a few passes, and the new defense will get a look at Winslow, Lionel James, Gary Anderson & Co.

The emphasis over last weekend was on defense, and Lynn seemed basically satisfied with what he saw.

“There were abilities that were intriguing,” he said, citing O’Neal and Unrein and adding Fred Robinson, a former defensive lineman who will be tested at linebacker.

Robinson weighs 233 pounds--too light to be a full-time pass rusher--so the Chargers will see if he can learn to make pass drops.

Like O’Neal, he will need time--about 1,000 repetitions in practice, Lynn suggested. Robinson showed promise Saturday, retreating nimbly to cover a receiver. But, understandably, he showed no instinct for making an interception.

The Chargers like the speed of rookie linebacker Ty Allert of Texas, but he’s another player who isn’t overly familiar with forward passes.

With more promising linemen than linebackers, the Chargers may play more four-man than three-man defensive fronts this season, Lynn said. And if Robinson works out at linebacker, look for four down linemen a majority of the time.

“The interesting thing about Fred is that he can slide down over a tackle and be a defensive lineman at times,” Lynn said. “With four down linemen, that would alleviate part of our problem at linebacker but not our defensive backfield situation.”

Although Coryell has said he expects the secondary to be one of the team’s most improved areas, Lynn seemed a little more cautious, primarily because several players will be in new positions.

Jeff Dale will move from free safety to strong safety, exchanging places with Gill Byrd, while John Hendy will go from corner to weak safety.

Wayne Davis will remain at cornerback, but he didn’t gain much experience as a rookie after an unsettling four-touchdown afternoon by Seattle’s Daryl Turner early in the year.

Danny Walters will be the only experienced defensive back in the same place he was last year.

“We have adequate speed in our secondary,” Lynn said. “Not great, but OK. We’ll be competitive with other teams in that area. What I’m concerned about is experience in the NFL and time at one position.”

One shift he seems to have little concern about involves Dale.

“I think he’ll be more comfortable at strong safety,” Lynn said. “Jeff is a more spatially confined player. By that I mean he’s better in a restricted area than roaming the whole field.”

As the history of the 1980s suggests, the Chargers have had more spatially confined defensive backs than just about any other team. What they’re hoping is that their pass rushers won’t be confined to the line of scrimmage quite so often.

Chargers Notes The offensive highlight of mini-camp was wide receiver Trumaine Johnson. A disappointment last year when he caught just four passes after coming to the Chargers as a highly touted performer from the United States Football League, Johnson now looks like a different player. “He’s so much better, there’s no comparison,” Coach Don Coryell said. “He feels comfortable with the offense. There’s no hesitation.” . . . Another receiver who caught Coryell’s attention was Dwayne Dixon of Florida. . . . A couple of young offensive linemen who were with the team part of last season, Gary Kowalski and Chris Faulkner, were praised by Coryell. The Chargers drafted two blockers, James FitzPatrick and Jeff Walker, who they expect to challenge for starting jobs.