Chargers preseason takeaways: Rookie Quentin Johnston ‘not satisfied’ with debut

Chargers wide receiver Quentin Johnston celebrates after scoring a touchdown in a 34-17 preseason win over the Rams.
Chargers wide receiver Quentin Johnston celebrates after scoring a touchdown in a 34-17 preseason win over the Rams on Saturday at SoFi Stadium. Johnston, the Chargers’ first-round pick in the 2023 draft, was not pleased with his overall performance Saturday.
(Kyusung Gong / Associated Press)

The Chargers opened their 2023 preseason slate with a 34-17 victory over the Rams on Saturday at SoFi Stadium. Some takeaways from the game:


First-round pick’s bounce back

He caught a touchdown pass and two other balls, but it was the two passes he failed to secure that Quentin Johnston was thinking about afterward.

“I’m not satisfied,” the rookie said. “Hopefully, [I’ll] come back next week and be better.”


A first-round pick — No. 21 overall — Johnston dropped a pair of passes from Easton Stick early in the game, one coming on a long well-placed ball down the right sideline.

Drops were an issue for Johnston at times during his career at Texas Christian and something the Chargers largely have dismissed, at least publicly, since acquiring him.

“Just focus,” Johnston said. “Obviously a big stage, just not as dialed in as I would like to be. I thought I was. Obviously, I wasn’t. Just a learning experience for me.”

Asked if the two passes were ones he should have caught, Johnston said, “Oh, yeah, 100%.”

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Late in the first half, it appeared that Johnston was done for the night as the Chargers, executing their two-minute offense, moved deep into Rams’ territory.

On first-and-goal at the eight-yard line, he hurriedly re-entered and caught a score from Stick.


Lined up in the left slot, Johnston made a quick move inside to sneak past Richard LeCounte and then snagged Stick’s dart of a throw before Jason Taylor II could close the gap.

“You’ve seen that throughout [training] camp,” coach Brandon Staley said. “He can make that guy miss. He can create that separation. He’s got that back-line target zone that we can really feature down there.”

Johnston scored despite his right cleat being untied throughout the play. Thinking he wasn’t going back in, he had removed his shoe on the sidelines and was trying to break it in with his hands when he was told to return to the game.

Johnston explained that he was wearing new cleats and hadn’t properly prepared them before the game.

“First of many, hopefully,” he said of his touchdown. “Just an amazing feeling.”


Another Horned Frog score

Derius Davis (12) scores on an 81-yard punt return for the Chargers in the second quarter Saturday.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)


Johnston’s former TCU teammate, Derius Davis, also reached the end zone in his NFL preseason debut. Davis did so on an electric 81-yard punt return early in the second quarter.

A fourth-round selection in April, Davis was drafted largely to be the Chargers’ primary kick returner. It took him barely one quarter to show why.

“He was ball-secure,” Staley said. “He was decisive. He set it up the way we wanted and then he finished it. You saw that elite speed that he has. That’s why we did draft him, for that game-breaking speed.”

After hesitating for several short steps, Davis made four jukes to avoid various Rams and then reached right sideline before running away from everyone else to put the Chargers up 13-0.

The return was designed to go to the left, but Davis said he called an audible after fielding the punt.


“I just seen too many people on the left side,” he said. “I slowed down a little bit just to let them gravitate toward the left … and got vertical.”

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Easton Stick’s solid first half

Chargers quarterback Easton Stick looks to pass in the first half against the Rams.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

In his first season as the backup to Justin Herbert, Stick had an impressive opener, going 14 of 21 for 109 yards and leading the Chargers on three scoring drives and to a 20-7 halftime lead.

His most impressive series came during the final two minutes of the first half when he directed the Chargers on a 10-play, 75-yard drive that took 91 seconds and resulted in the touchdown to Johnston.

Stick completed seven of eight attempts for 56 yards and had a seven-yard scramble to convert a third down.


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“He’s got really good instincts in the pocket,” Staley said. “He can really feel when to slide and move and then [when it’s], ‘Hey, I gotta run.’ You saw him use his legs both ways.”

Stick looked in command while also leading the offense on back-to-back 13-play drives that ended with field goals. The two series covered 59 and 89 yards, respectively, and consumed more than six minutes apiece.

The highlights for Stick on those possessions included a 28-yard connection with Keelan Doss and a 13-yarder with Donald Parham Jr.

Staley praised Stick’s improved balance and body positioning, saying both have led to more accuracy and consistency, especially on longer passes.


Taking it to the ground

Chargers running back Joshua Kelley scrambles in the second quarter against the Rams on Saturday.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)


The Chargers want to run the ball more effectively this season and opened with 214 yards on 31 rushes — an average of 6.9 yards — Saturday.

And those numbers didn’t include a 71-yard Isaiah Spiller touchdown run that was nullified by a holding penalty on rookie guard Jordan McFadden early in the third quarter.

Joshua Kelley (54 yards on nine carries) and Spiller (27 yards on five attempts) both had ample room and took advantage as the Chargers repeatedly battered the Rams’ front.

During their third possession, the Chargers ran the ball on seven consecutive snaps and gained 49 yards.

Staley praised the blocking and added, “Our running backs did a nice job of making one cut and being really decisive.”


The ground attack was capped in the fourth quarter when undrafted rookie Elijah Dotson scored on runs of 37 and 40 yards. Coming out of Northern Colorado, Dotson finished with 92 yards on six carries.

“He’s a great dude, No. 1,” Staley said. “Just a gym rat. … He does have a burst. He is decisive. He can finish runs.”


The downside

Chargers cornerback Ja'Sir Taylor (36) breaks up a pass in the first half against the Rams on Saturday.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

The roughest stretch for the Chargers came on the Rams’ fourth possession, which ended up being a 16-play, 75-yard touchdown march that took up more than eight minutes of the second quarter.

The series was extended by a pair of third-down penalties on the Chargers — illegal contact by Ja’Sir Taylor and unsportsmanlike conduct by JT Woods.


The Chargers also had their hands on two potential interceptions, but those were dropped by Taylor and Deane Leonard.

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Rams wide receiver Puka Nacua beat Taylor on the touchdown — an 11-yard catch from a Stetson Bennett pass.

“If you make mistakes against a good team, they’re going to capitalize,” Staley said. “That’s what the Rams did.”

The unsportsmanlike conduct penalty came when Woods slapped Rams receiver Ben Skowronek in the head after an incompletion near the goal line.

This is a significant preseason for Woods, who is trying to prove himself capable of contributing in his second NFL season. He mostly split time Saturday with Raheem Layne.


Familiar faces upfront

Chargers guard Zion Johnson stands on the sideline during a game against the Kansas City Chiefs in November.
Chargers guard Zion Johnson stands on the sideline during a game against the Kansas City Chiefs in November.
(Kyusung Gong / Associated Press)

The only two locked-in starters who played were second-year offensive linemen Zion Johnson and Jamaree Salyer. Both are moving to new positions — Johnson to left guard and Salyer to right guard.

With the position switches, the extra snaps provided additional game experience in advance of the Chargers’ season opener on Sept. 10. Johnson and Salyer played the first two series.