The understudy is ready for a leading role. That was evident last season when Chargers rookie tight end Hunter Henry, a second-round pick out of Arkansas in 2016, caught 36 passes for 478 yards and eight touchdowns and was an effective blocker in the running game.
The star is not ready to yield the spotlight. Antonio Gates, who turns 37 on Sunday, is back for his 15th NFL season, needing one scoring catch to break Tony Gonzalez's record of 111 touchdown receptions for a tight end, and he showed little slippage while catching 53 passes for 548 yards and seven touchdowns last season.
So what gives?
Nothing if you're the Chargers, who stand to benefit by having Gates, a probable Hall of Famer, and Henry, one of football's best young tight ends, share the position when the team moves to Los Angeles this season.
"We can both contribute a lot together," Henry, 22, said after Wednesday's practice, part of a three-day mandatory minicamp that ends Thursday. "I'm ready to take on a bigger role, I'm confident in my abilities, but he's proved himself for 14 years; I've proved it for one. I'm trying to get to that level. I'm trying to learn from him every single day."
The 6-foot-5, 250-pound Henry described as "unbelievable" the experience of serving an NFL apprenticeship under Gates, who has caught 897 passes for 11,192 yards during his distinguished career.
"He's gonna go down as one of the greatest tight ends to ever play football," Henry said. "He's an awesome guy — easy to learn from, easy to watch, easy to pick things up from."
On the field, Henry watches how Gates reads defenses and sets up routes for later in games, how he positions his hands and feet on certain blocks, and how he's able to "slow the game down."
Off the field, Henry is learning how to "treat your body as a business," how to prevent injuries by taking ice baths, stretching and warming up properly and how to mentally prepare for each work day.
"It's a physical game," said Henry, who tied Tampa Bay's Cameron Brate for most touchdowns for a tight end in 2016. "You have to be ready to go each and every Sunday."
Gates stresses the importance of maintaining focus and not thinking success as a rookie will guarantee success as a sophomore.
"You see so many players come in and have one or two big years, and then they lose focus," Gates said. "I personally think you should treat every year like your first, because when you come into something, you're not established. You have to prove to everyone, 'This is what I can do. This is who I am.'
"Sometimes, when guys have success — and I don't see this in him, because he's a very level-headed kid, a very hard worker — but I've seen guys lose their focus. It's something I continue to talk to my kids about. Do what you know is right, and what got you to that level."
First-year Chargers coach Anthony Lynn has "no doubt Henry can be a No. 1," but Gates and Henry are more of a 1 and 1A in the eyes of offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt. The Chargers run plenty of two-tight-end packages and can base playing-time decisions on which tight end better fits a particular defense.
"It worked pretty good last year — both of them were productive, and we're going to try to utilize both this season," Whisenhunt said. "It's good to see Antonio out here. He's looking good. But we're not going to ignore the fact that Hunter is really coming along as a young tight end in the league.
"I'm sure there will be times when both are on the field, and there will be other plays where we're trying to work them in. When you've got guys like that, it's a good problem to have when you're trying to balance all those things."
Nuts and Bolts
Lynn had stern words for the Chargers after Tuesday's practice, which the coach described as "sluggish" and filled with mistakes and fouls. He was much more pleased with Wednesday's effort. "The energy was back, the defense had a really good day," Lynn said. "The offense made some plays, but the defense was on top of it. Guys were stripping the ball out, running to the ball and getting pass breakups." ... During the red-zone portion of Wednesday's practice, 35-year-old quarterback Philip Rivers, who is not known for his mobility, ran a read-option play. "I think it's always fun to do those kinds of things in OTAs," Whisenhunt said. "You'll probably see less of that in-season, but you never know. If he's feeling frisky one day, we may take a shot at it." … Chargers owner Dean Spanos attended Wednesday's practice.