Chargers vs. Saints preview: Easton Stick’s development will be in spotlight

Chargers quarterback Easton Stick, right, hands off to running back Joshua Kelley
Chargers quarterback Easton Stick, right, hands off to running back Joshua Kelley during a preseason win over the Rams on Aug. 12. Stick will probably see plenty of playing time against the New Orleans Saints on Sunday.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

The most significant on-field work for the Chargers’ starters is over, the team staging joint practices with the New Orleans Saints on Thursday and Friday in Costa Mesa.

The attention now shifts back to the depth pieces, those players the Chargers will need to fill out special teams and step in during the season in event of injury. Yes, these depth pieces are important.

Many of the players in question will see time Sunday when the Chargers and Saints meet in a preseason game set to begin at 4 p.m. at SoFi Stadium.


Despite the threat of inclement weather associated with Hurricane Hilary, both teams expect to play.

Here are five things to watch for Sunday against the Saints:


JT Woods warning

Chargers safety JT Woods participates in drills at training camp in August 2022.
(Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

The Chargers continue to push young safety JT Woods in his bid to earn more defensive playing time in 2023.

A third-round pick out of Baylor last year, Woods has the speed and range the Chargers demand to play in the deepest part of their defense. But his tackling remains a project.


Woods played 22 snaps on defense and nine on special teams in the Chargers’ first preseason game last weekend against the Rams.

“I thought that JT … did a really good job of commanding the back end and running the show,” defensive coordinator Derrick Ansley said. “Obviously, there are things that we have to work on — pad level and things like that — but I was pleased with his physicality.”

The Chargers had one of the NFL’s worst rushing attacks last season, but changed its strategy under new offensive coordinator Kellen Moore. Storm threatens Sunday game against Saints.

Aug. 18, 2023

Woods has been used in several different packages during training camp as the Chargers search for their best defensive back groupings.

With Alohi Gilman dealing with a knee contusion, Woods received plenty of opportunities in the joint practices with the Saints. He had a notable run stop during Thursday’s session.

A lowlight for Woods came against the Rams late in the first half when he was called for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that led to a touchdown.


“I thought you saw a young player who got caught up in the moment of competing,” Ansley said. “…You just have to know when to pump the brakes…. It was one of those things that you learn from and move on.”


Elijah Dotson and (maybe) the next Elijah Dotson?

Chargers running back Elijah Dotson runs for a touchdown against the Rams on Aug. 12.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

Before facing the Rams last weekend, Dotson had little to no profile among NFL running back prospects. Then he raced for touchdowns of 37 and 40 yards to grab some serious spotlight.

Undrafted out of Northern Colorado, Dotson continued to shine in practice as the Chargers increased his opportunities, particularly after releasing Larry Rountree III on Monday.

“A lot of times when you come into a situation like he did,” offensive coordinator Kellen Moore said, “you get a couple of [chances] and then you kind of take advantage of those and get a couple more and a couple more.”


The Chargers defense dominated in a scrimmage with the New Orleans Saints, with linebacker Kenneth Murray Jr. continuing his strong play this summer.

Aug. 17, 2023

Dotson remains a long shot to make the Chargers’ initial 53-man roster behind Austin Ekeler, Joshua Kelley and Isaiah Spiller. But he certainly has created a buzz around his name.

With the arrival of another preseason game, more opportunities will come for Dotson and others who, like him, are desperately trying to prove to the Chargers and the rest of the NFL that they belong in the league.


Easton Stick’s continued development

Chargers quarterback Easton Stick throws during practice.
Chargers quarterback Easton Stick looked confident in the pocket against the Rams on Aug. 12.
(Kyusong Gong / Associated Press)

In his first season as Justin Herbert’s backup, Stick was poised and productive in the Chargers’ 34-17 preseason victory over the Rams.

After a game-opening three-and-out series, he led the offense to three consecutive scores on drives lasting 13, 13 and 10 plays.


The final one came during the last two minutes of the first half and ended with Stick passing eight yards to rookie Quentin Johnston for a touchdown.

“I thought Easton just operated at a really good level,” Moore said. “…I thought his two-minute drive was phenomenal — picking and choosing when to use his legs, made good decisions with the ball.”

After halftime, the Chargers went to rookie quarterback Max Duggan, who attempted only three passes — and was sacked three times — as the offense turned more to the running game.


Dustin Hopkins vs. Cameron Dicker

Chargers kicker Dustin Hopkins walks off the field after a win over the Denver Broncos in October.
(Jeff Lewis / Associated Press)

At the start of training camp, the Chargers had a kicker showdown set up between 10th-year veteran Dustin Hopkins and Cameron Dicker, who is entering his second season.


But the matchup fizzled early when Hopkins missed several practices while dealing with an unspecified ailment and Dicker took over with a consistent showing.

Hopkins returned to practice Thursday and now appears ready to make a late push for the job with two preseason games remaining.

He was the Chargers’ kicker from late October of 2021 through Week 4 of last year. But a hamstring injury sidelined Hopkins and presented a chance for Dicker, who made 19 of 20 field goals and all 22 extra point tries in 10 games.


High on John Hightower

Chargers wide receiver John Hightower runs a drill during practice in May.
(Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

After an eye-popping start to training camp, veteran wide receiver John Hightower missed valuable time — and the preseason opener — because of an undisclosed injury.


He returned this week and participated in the joint practice Friday. Hightower is battling Keelan Doss for the sixth wide receiver spot and could use some highlights against the Saints to boost his case.

A fifth-round pick of Philadelphia in 2020, Hightower appeared in 14 games for the Eagles in parts of two seasons. He hasn’t played in the regular season since Nov. 7, 2021, when Philadelphia lost to the Chargers on a late Hopkins field goal.