Column: ‘Next man up’ can’t let Chargers down amid mounting injuries

The Chargers' Austin Ekeler rushes the football against the Colts.
Austin Ekeler’s three-touchdown performance in the season opener is one reason the Chargers were able to overcome a depleted roster and beat the Colts.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Two phrases have been getting a lot of use around the Chargers’ locker room this season. One has a meaning that extends beyond the field, but the other is a common football cliché.

A few years ago, quarterback Philip Rivers adopted “nunc coepi,” Latin for “now I begin,” as his personal motto. He sees each moment in life and in football as a new start, after a good experience or a bad one. Rivers used the phrase while making a college commencement speech and had it printed on T-shirts and hats, and on signs that were placed in the Chargers’ locker room.

His teammates have adopted it too, and it came to mind for running back Austin Ekeler the other day after he was asked how the Chargers could build off their season-opening victory over Indianapolis.


“It’s a new week,” Ekeler said. “Phil’s little saying, ‘nunc coepi.’ We begin again. That’s how it is. We too, we begin again. Preparation and everything comes back around and we’ve got to go perform on Sunday.”

The other phrase the Chargers used often as they prepared to face the Lions at Detroit on Sunday has a more conventional football flavor: Next man up. For the Chargers, depleted by injuries in their secondary and on offense, that means next man up, and the man after that, and maybe the man after that.

Injuries to strong safety Derwin James (foot stress fracture), safety Roderic Teamer (hamstring), left tackle Russell Okung (pulmonary embolism), tight end Hunter Henry (knee), wide receivers Mike Williams (knee) and Geremy Davis (hamstring), cornerbacks Michael Davis (hamstring) and Trevor Williams (quadriceps), defensive end Isaac Rochell (concussion), and linebackers Jatavis Brown (ankle) and Denzel Perryman (ankle) have left the Chargers scrambling to fill holes.

They were able to get by the Colts in overtime last week without many of those players — and without holdout running back Melvin Gordon — fueled in large part by Ekeler’s three-touchdown performance. But how long can Ekeler, though quick and rock-solid, withstand repeated pounding.

Ekeler was the next man up last season when Gordon missed four games and made the most of it, as did Justin Jackson behind him. The same was true for kicker Michael Badgley, who signed with the Chargers last October after Caleb Sturgis was hurt, and won the starting job after Sturgis recovered.

With foot injury on mend, Chargers’ safety Derwin James aims to get back on roster before regular season ends.

“It’s the nature of the game,” Ekeler said. “Football, it’s rough. You almost expect people to go down with injury. The rate’s 100% for every player.

“You try to minimize that by taking care of your body and your nutrition and working out, but sometimes, it does happen. And it’s super unfortunate. Especially for Hunter, just coming off an injury, to go right back into a different injury. It’s something you can’t prepare for. You don’t know who it’s going to be. It has to be the next-man-up mentality. That’s the entire NFL.”

Virgil Green will step in for Henry at tight end. Sean Culkin is in the mix too.

“That’s how you make a living,” Green said. “Whenever opportunity comes across your way, you’ve got to find a way to get the job done and make things happen, and that’s what we do.”

Offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt said he will mix things around and that Travis Benjamin will be more involved if Mike Williams can’t play.

“If you have a bunch of guys that believe in what they’re doing and they’re smart guys, then you have a chance,” Whisenhunt said. “It’s not like you have 85 of them, like they do in college, or whatever number it is. We feel like our guys work at it. Hopefully, when they get their chances, they’ll have success.”

Patching their holes on defense could be their most difficult task Sunday. They gave up 203 rushing yards to the Colts, the second-highest total in Week 1; they gave up an average of 105.8 rushing yards last season. Last season, their linebackers were frequent casualties. This season, the secondary is thinning.

It will be a combination homecoming game and Mother’s Day celebration for Desmond King when the Chargers play the Detroit Lions at Ford Field.

“As a defense we didn’t feel like we played a full, 60-minute game up to our standard,” defensive coordinator Gus Bradley said. “Some things, we’re experimenting to kind of find out. We did some different things, defensively positioning guys to see what’s best for us, to hopefully come up with a personality and say, ‘This is who we are on defense.’ ”

The style of their defense is relatively simple, Bradley said. But he wants to play fast, and that’s difficult for fill-ins who aren’t accustomed to the pace or are stationed out of their normal positions. He who hesitates gets lost on coverage.

The theme of the past week was building trust among players who haven’t lined up next to each other much, if at all. The simplicity of their defense means “they can come in, step in and know what’s asked of them, so that trust level, I think, should come around fast,” Bradley said.

What it comes down to, then, is that each next man up must be ready for this week’s new beginning.

“Yeah, with injuries, we’re going to have to deal with them,” Ekeler said “Still, our expectations don’t drop.”