Chargers preseason opener: SoCal rookies Tuli Tuipulotu, Daiyan Henley hit home

Chargers rookie linebacker Daiyan Henley puts on his helmet during training camp.
Chargers rookie linebacker Daiyan Henley puts on his helmet during training camp. He is looking forward to making his professional debut in his home city.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

When seen most recently on a game-day field, the Chargers were playing the franchise’s most significant contest in four years.

The stakes will be slightly less monumental Saturday when they open the preseason against the Rams at SoFi Stadium.

Back in January, the Chargers built a 27-0 first-half lead at Jacksonville before giving all back in a 31-30 AFC wild-card playoff loss.


The expectation is that this return to the field will be lacking in comparable drama and offensive production. The majority of the Chargers’ regulars won’t play as the coaches instead take an extended look at the team’s depth.

Five meaningful things to watch for on a night that, in so many other ways, means little:

Daiyan Henley inspired his father to change his life and steer his son away from the L.A. streets and to a life in football that led Daiyan to the Chargers.

Aug. 6, 2023

Three draft-pick defenders

Rookies Tuli Tuipulotu (second round), Daiyan Henley (third) and Scott Matlock (sixth) each have had notably impressive moments during training camp.

Playing behind starting edge rushers Joey Bosa and Khalil Mack, Tuipulotu is expected to contribute immediately this season as a rotational piece.

“The preseason is going to be a great opportunity for him to measure himself because he is going to make a lot of mistakes,” coach Brandon Staley said, “[and] he’s going to learn a lot.”

Henley, a reserve linebacker behind Eric Kendricks and Kenneth Murray Jr., is projected to make an impact on special teams. Against the Rams, he’ll be playing just minutes from where he grew up in Crenshaw.

“I mean, SoFi, this is home,” Henley said. “To be there down the street from my house, you could imagine how many family members I’m going to have there. … Excitement is out the roof for me.”


Matlock has been working with the No. 1 defense recently because of injuries along the defensive front. Austin Johnson and Otito Ogbonnia are on the physically unable to perform list and Sebastian Joseph-Day has been dealing with a quadriceps contusion.

In practice Wednesday, Matlock had a key quarterback pressure and also made multiple plays against the run, an area where the Chargers struggled in 2022.

Chargers safety JT Woods participates in drills during practice.
The Chargers’ JT Woods runs into coverage during practice. Improved tackling should earn the safety more playing time.
(Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

The young defensive backs

The preseason is an afterthought for the vast majority of Chargers, a group that doesn’t include JT Woods. The second-year safety is trying to prove he deserves some defensive playing time.

Since drafting Woods in the third round, the Chargers have touted his speed, range and play-making. What they need to see is improved tackling, a vital component when playing in the deep part of the field.

“For everyone who has been in the league, they understand how big of a jump it is from Year 1 to Year 2,” safety Alohi Gilman said when asked about Woods’ development. “I went through that. Just seeing him grow and get better … that’s all part of the process.”


Tackling has been an emphasis during this training camp, Staley repeatedly referencing how often missed tackles hurt the defense — especially against the run — last season.

Mark Webb Jr., a third-year defensive back, is facing a similar challenge to the one before Woods.

Brandon Staley watched his parents battle cancer and then had his own bout, but the Chargers coach believes the experience can help him be a stronger coach.

July 30, 2023

“You find out about young safeties when they have to tackle,” Staley said. “He’s athletic. He’s versatile. … This is his third year in the system, so we would expect a big jump from him.”

Entering his second season, cornerback Ja’Sir Taylor is another player to monitor Saturday. Forecast for a larger role this year and being trained to play inside and outside, Taylor figures to be active against the Rams.

Running back roulette

The Chargers’ have one the clearest No. 1 running backs in the NFL in Austin Ekeler. They also have one of the least clear No. 2 running back situations.

Now in his fourth season, Joshua Kelley has shown the capacity to fill the spot behind Ekeler but also struggled to remain healthy and available, his career high in total offensive snaps coming as a rookie.


The Chargers used a fourth-round pick on Isaiah Spiller in 2022. He then appeared in only six games — with 18 carries — as a rookie. He was inactive for nine games.

Establishing a reliable backup to Ekeler could be a sneaky way to boost a running game that needs improvement. Less strain on Ekeler early could mean a more effective Ekeler later.

“When it’s live tackle to the ground, we’re going to know more about what that competition is,” Staley said when asked about Kelley and Spiller. “Preseason will be big for both of those guys.”

Costa Mesa, CA - July 29: Los Angeles Chargers wide receiver Quentin Johnston.
Chargers wide receiver Quentin Johnston catches the ball during a training camp session.
(Kyusung Gong / Los Angeles Times)

Two rookie wideouts from TCU

After the Chargers’ final practice this week, Staley revealed little about who would play against the Rams. Common sense suggests first-round pick Quentin Johnston will make an appearance.

Taken No. 21 overall in April, Johnston missed practice time recently because of an illness but did finish the week as a full participant. The Chargers figure to get him some experience before their season opener Sept. 10.


Johnston has mixed eye-opening plays with typical rookie lapses during his first professional training camp, the Chargers talking him up while understanding just how real the move to the NFL can be for many.

“You always go in thinking you’re going to be a star,” Chargers wide receivers coach Chris Beatty said. “You’re a first-round pick. You’re thinking this is going to be easy, just like college. But it’s a serious transition.”

Three rounds after selecting Johnston, the Chargers took his TCU teammate, Derius Davis, another wide receiver. Though his role on offense figures to be minimal to start the season, Davis was drafted to be the Chargers’ kick returner.

Running back kicks has been known to be a highlight — or lowlight — during the preseason. Last August, the Chargers surrendered two returns — one kickoff and one punt — for touchdowns against Dallas.

Both were scored by KaVontae Turpin. And where did Turpin go to school? TCU.

Austin Ekeler is just what NFL teams want in a running back. He can run inside and out and catch like a wide receiver. He scored 18 touchdowns last season. Yet, where’s the pay?

July 28, 2023

The new No. 2 QB

The Chargers have the NFL’s highest-paid player — by average annual value — at quarterback in Justin Herbert.

Behind him, they have a quarterback with two snaps of NFL experience. Easton Stick’s lone game came during the 2020 season, in an October victory over Jacksonville.


After spending four years further down the depth chart, Stick is now the primary backup to Herbert.

“I’m really looking forward to Easton playing a lot in the preseason and getting to show what he can do,” Staley said. “I told you guys that I think all three years that we’ve been with him, he has improved as a player.”

Over the next three weeks, Stick should have plenty of opportunity to prove it.