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‘Hard Knocks’ shows unusual path for rookies during preseason in pandemic

Chargers running back Austin Ekeler outruns the Oakland Raiders defense for a 44-yard touchdown.
Chargers running back Austin Ekeler outruns the Oakland Raiders defense for a 44-yard touchdown on a screen pass from Philip Rivers at StubHub Center on Oct. 7, 2018.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Another episode of Hard Knocks, another coronavirus scare.

After Chargers coach Anthony Lynn revealed in the season premiere that he tested positive for the coronavirus, offensive quality control coach Seth Ryan registered a positive test, which forced him into quarantine.

But he was only out for a day and a half.

The test was false positive, and after a retest, he was able to re-enter the facility.

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Still, the scare forced the Chargers receiving corps to meet via videoconference, and for the staff to perform a deep cleaning of Ryan’s work station. The uncertainty prompted Chargers receivers coach Phil McGeoghan to remind all of his players to be ready and vigilant.

Ryan, son of former Buffalo Bills and New York Jets head coach Rex Ryan, always wore a mask and made smart decisions, only working on football matters and playing video games, Call of Duty, McGeoghan said. If he could be exposed, anyone could, he said. If someone had to quarantine, the next guy needs to be up.

Rookies and other young players made several standout plays Tuesday as the Rams went through their first training camp practice in pads.

“That’s what football is going to be in 2020,” McGeoghan said.

Pandemic concerns made the NFL shift its training camp structure, slowly increasing the intensity and the amount of physical contact. This week’s episode showed that, starting with walkthroughs and ending with practices in helmets.

In between, it portrayed the tough circumstances facing this year’s crop of rookies. Without preseason games, new players will only be evaluated in practice, making each live rep and interaction with coaches more important than years’ past.

Lynn took a hands-on approach with Darius Bradwell, a rookie running back from Tulane. Lynn, a former running back, was disappointed that Bradwell came to camp overweight – he weighed 253, about 15 pounds over his playing weight in college.

Bradwell attributed it to living in the team hotel. Lynn said he sees potential in him, and the strength and conditioning coach worked him out after practice.

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“I’m going to be on your ass, I’m going to get it out of you, but we have to get your body right first,” Lynn told him.

The coach said he fears not having four preseason games will affect players like Bradwell. Without those exhibitions, Austin Ekeler, the Chargers featured running back and a former undrafted free agent, would not have impressed coaches during his rookie season in 2017.

Now, Ekeler sees himself in Bradwell’s shoes.

“This year with COVID, it’s going to be difficult,” Ekeler said. “Not impossible by any means, but it’s going to be difficult.”

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A rookie who will make the team but still requires mentoring is quarterback Justin Herbert, the Chargers first-round draft selection this spring. Cameras showed him working on his cadence at the line of scrimmage. At Oregon, he took snaps from shotgun formations. Now, he needs to at times be under center.

Melvin Ingram attended the team’s second padded practice of training camp Tuesday in Costa Mesa but again did not participate in drills.

Rams offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth, who tested positive for coronavirus in the offseason, also helped young players with their technique. Sitting poolside at his house, he shared his story of how he and his family contracted the disease and recovered, including his father-in-law, who endured a stay in the hospital.

Whitworth’s teammate, cornerback Jalen Ramsey, went house hunting. Despite not having a contract extension finalized, he said he feels Los Angeles will be his home. He called the day he got traded to the Rams “the best day of my life.”

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The real estate agent even showed him a 31-acre home with personalized family pictures.

“I wouldn’t be wasting my time on my off days searching for homes if I didn’t think I’d be here long-term, even after football,” Ramsey said.


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