Amid pandemic, Chargers rookie QB Justin Herbert must be prepared to play at any time

Justin Herbert throws a pass during the NFL combine in Indianapolis.
Despite no preseason and a shortened camp, Chargers rookie Justin Herbert needs to be ready to play amid a pandemic that could sideline players at any moment.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

In his most recent game, Justin Herbert’s team trailed at halftime and entering the fourth quarter and faced its largest deficit with eight minutes remaining.

Finally, his 30-yard dash into the end zone lifted Oregon to a 28-27 victory over Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day.

Now, as a pro, the young quarterback is facing another situation where he’ll have to scramble and come from behind.

Entering his first NFL training camp, Herbert is playing catch-up again after the Chargers’ offseason program was decimated by a COVID-19 pandemic that also resulted in the league eliminating all preseason games.


“We definitely can’t make up for the reps that we missed out on,” coach Anthony Lynn said Wednesday. “What we can do is try to take advantage of every one of those suckers moving forward.”

On the plus side, Herbert and the Chargers have time. Veteran Tyrod Taylor is expected to be the Week 1 starter and, if he plays well and the team wins, that might not change all season.

Defensive end Joey Bosa agrees to a contract extension with the Chargers that is reportedly worth $135 million over five years.

But the Chargers used the No. 6 overall pick on Herbert in April with the idea that he eventually will emerge as the franchise’s future at the most important position in football.

For now, he has been engaging in walk-throughs with the rest of the rookies this week at the Chargers’ Costa Mesa training facility as veterans go though coronavirus testing.

The first full-squad, on-field conditioning work is set to begin Monday.

Lynn suggested the Chargers could do more scrimmaging in practice this summer as a way to increase intensity. He also explained they will continue to employ what he calls “got-to-have-it periods,” which attempt to simulate game conditions.

Given the uncertainty caused by COVID-19, Lynn described readying a team — let alone a rookie quarterback — as an ever-evolving challenge.


“It’s chaos and we’re going to have to welcome chaos this year,” he said. “If you can’t adapt and change, you’re gonna struggle.”

He also indicated that even with the presence of Taylor and the buffer the nine-year veteran represents, Herbert will have to learn quickly.

Chargers coach Anthony Lynn.
Anthony Lynn says his rookie quarterback needs to be ready.
(Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)

“This young man has got to be ready to play. This is a year of a lot of uncertainty. Every player has got to prepare and be ready to start.”

Chargers coach Anthony Lynn, on rookie quarterback Justin Herbert


Among the obstacles NFL teams are set to face this season is the possibility of players missing time because of the coronavirus. The league already has increased the size of practice squads as a precaution.

“This young man has got to be ready to play,” Lynn said. “This is a year of a lot of uncertainty. Every player has got to prepare and be ready to start. … Him sitting out the whole year, that may not be the case.”

Herbert joins the Chargers after being a three-time Academic All-American at Oregon and winning the 2019 William V. Campbell Trophy, also known as the “Academic Heisman.” The award is given to the college player with the best combination of academics, community service and football performance.

Chargers quarterback coach Pep Hamilton called Herbert “a very smart kid” and noted that “football’s important to him,” adding that Herbert has plunged into the team’s playbook.


Herbert also has the benefit of having spent four seasons with the Ducks, appearing in 43 games and throwing 1,293 passes, and then starring in the Senior Bowl.

“You just can’t teach experience,” Lynn said. “Hopefully, that will carry over in this league, the things that he did in college. … We’re going to get him ready the best we can.”

The missing offseason work and preseason games also could affect the Chargers assigned to protect the quarterback, no small concern a season after the offensive line struggled.

This is a rebuilt front, with veterans Bryan Bulaga (right tackle) and Trai Turner (right guard) taking over. Center Mike Pouncey is attempting to come back from a neck injury that limited him to five starts.


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The Chargers also are looking for someone to emerge at left tackle, with Trey Pipkins and Sam Tevi the top candidates. Dan Feeney returns as the starting left guard.

The group will not have a chance to share a single in-game snap together until the Chargers open the regular season, a somewhat daunting prospect given the time offensive lines typically need to mesh.

“One of the things these young guys have to get is confidence,” Bulaga said. “You only get confidence with going out on the field and figuring out who you are as a player and then executing it down after down.


“When you do that, you can go out on the game field and just be yourself, play fast and play with confidence.”

That’s the uphill journey Herbert and the other new Chargers officially begin next week, this particular last-ditch comeback attempt starting from Day 1.