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Chargers' bolt is BACK: 'Alpha leader' Derwin James drives culture of accountability in Los Angeles

COSTA MESA, Calif. -- Chris Harris Jr. has been around long enough to understand the importance of conserving energy as training camp nears its close. So at the end of a practice last week, with one day remaining before the end of camp, the Los Angeles Chargers' 11th-year cornerback took the longer route to greet a visitor, walking along the waist-high chain-link fence until he found an opening that allowed him to reach the other side.

He took a seat on a white folding chair, removed his mouthpiece and exhaled. The light at the end of camp's long dark tunnel was bright and welcomed. But the smile on his face moments later had nothing to do with that. It had everything to do with teammate Derwin James, who walked to the fence, placed both hands on top of it and easily hopped to the other side.

The moment was a testament to not only James' youth and athleticism -- now 25, he is seven years younger than Harris -- but also a metaphor for the standout safety's approach to the season. He isn't interested in circuitous routes. He's all about direct lines, whether seeking out a ball-carrier or attacking questions about his health. He understands why people keep bringing up his physical well-being after missing 27 of 32 games the past two seasons because of foot and knee injuries, respectively, but the questions have grown stale.

Rather than attempt to sidestep them, he runs through them, just as he would an opponent. He drives home his point with an unmistakable intensity, his normally infectious smile vanishing and his eyes wide and unblinking.

"I hate when people say, 'If y'all stay healthy ... ,' " he pronounced, speaking of both himself and the team in general. "I'm tired of that. I'm going to stay healthy and we're going to stay healthy. We're speaking that into the air."

If so, the Chargers could be the sleeper team of 2021. They have the 2020 Offensive Rookie of the Year in quarterback Justin Herbert, an offensive line that was upgraded with the signing of the top available center (Corey Linsley) in free agency and one of the top tackles (Rashawn Slater) in the draft, plus a deep stable of pass catchers and a defense that features impactful edge rusher Joey Bosa and athletic inside linebacker Kenneth Murray. And then there is James. His return after missing all of last season because of knee surgery is the tide that can lift almost any team.

The 6-foot-2, 215-pounder transcends labels. In some situations, he's a defensive back. In others, he's a linebacker. Then he's a pass rusher. Then a returner. There really isn't anything he can't do, which is why he was voted first-team All-Pro as a rookie. Veterans like Harris normally temper expectations or comparisons with players still seeking to establish roots in the league, but not when it comes to James.

"I've played with a lot of great people in the secondary -- Hall of Famers like Champ (Bailey) and Dawk (Brian Dawkins) -- but it's hard to say anybody is like this kid, the way he loves the game, the way he competes every day," Harris said. "He's very smart and has a great enthusiasm about him, a great spirit about him. And he has freakish talent. He can run, has great quickness, very physical and strong. The season could definitely change with him out there. He's that special of a player."

James was among the first in line when the football gods were handing out athletic intellect and ability. But what takes his stature with teammates to a higher level is his unbridled passion for the game. Some people love the game for what it can do for them; others cherish it for the competition and camaraderie. James is the latter, which has earned him the respect and the right among teammates to push and pull them.

During a recent 11-on-11 drill, the defense was short a corner. Rather than let it pass, James immediately called out the culprit, whose name has been withheld by protective team members. It might have been a simple lapse to some, but to James, it was much more than that. He's trying to establish a culture of accountability on a team where there were issues getting the right people on the field during multiple games last season.

"Do you want to be out here?!" James demanded.

Two days later, when asked about his reaction, James didn't back down.

"I challenged him because there's no reason we should ever have 10 guys on defense," he said. "If anything, we should have 12 guys out there. The coach should have to pull you off the field, not hold things up to get you on the field. That's telling me that you don't want to be there. It's all about mindset when you take the field, and having the right approach. Having 10 guys, I don't like that."

His commitment and dedication is a reason he wears the captain's "C" on his jersey, and why he has the respect of those around him. The next malicious bone you find in his body will be the first. He is unfailingly positive and enthusiastic, with an intuitive sense of how to get through to people.

"He holds guys accountable, but he does it in the right way," general manager Tom Telesco said. "He knows when to push on guys, and he knows when to pat them on the back. He has a great feel and we missed that last season. He's that alpha leader that everyone follows."

James was regarded as one of the more gifted players in the 2018 draft, but inexplicably fell to the Chargers at No. 17 because of concerns about a knee injury sustained during his Florida State career. It didn't take long for James to make clubs regret passing on him, as he started every game for the Chargers as a rookie.

He opened the season at free safety, but the coaches soon realized his athleticism and intellect could make him a force on every level. So defensive coordinator Gus Bradley switched him to strong safety to allow James to play closer to the line of scrimmage, where he could rush the passer, neutralize tight ends and, sometimes, defend receivers in the slot.

He finished the year with 105 tackles, three interceptions, 13 passes defensed, six quarterback hits and 3.5 sacks, a stat-stuffing effort that immediately proved his standing as one of the most dynamic defensive chess pieces in the league. More importantly, his presence helped the Chargers reach the playoffs for the first time in five years.

"He elevates everyone around him: defense, offense, special teams. Shoot, he even elevates coaches," Bradley, now defensive coordinator of the rival Las Vegas Raiders, said recently. "You see the way he competes and the way he goes out and plays the game, and his love for the game, and it forces you to match it. If you don't, you have to ask yourself: Who's the leader here? Who's the one who's taking charge and setting the tone? It's just unique, the impact he has."

He's particularly impactful when using disrespect as a motivational tool, such as last week on the final day of joint workouts with the San Francisco 49ers. Niners wideout River Cracraft was looking to catch the eyes of the coaches and ultimately land a spot on the team's receiver-rich roster, and one way to draw attention was by showing he would not back down from anyone. Enter James.

Cracraft stuck on his block of James a little too long during an 11-on-11 drill near the goal line, nearly setting off a scrap between the sides. Two snaps later, the two had words again. Word to the wise: You might get away with poking the bear once, but not twice. On the next snap, James undercut tight end George Kittle and picked off a pass that he returned 99 yards for a touchdown, raising his right index finger as he crossed midfield. A point needed to be made, and James made it. It didn't matter that Kittle had gotten him for a TD earlier in a similar situation. All that mattered is that he felt tested by Cracraft, by Kittle and by quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo.

"I love it. I love odds against me. I love it all. It's just how I was raised," James said in general, not specifically about the interception return. "You're going to see what type of person you are when there's pressure. Me, I'm going to come with it."

He doesn't care what's before him -- an All-Pro tight end, a former Super Bowl-starting QB, a young receiver trying to make the team, or a chain-link fence. He knows what he wants and is committed to take a direct line to get there.

"There ain't no ceiling for me," James said. "I'm going to continue to get better. I don't put a cap on me because I'm always trying to find a way to get better. I feel like I can do so many things better, so I don't try to put it like: OK, you need five interceptions, you need 100 tackles, you need to go to the Pro Bowl. I just want to be available for my teammates and come out and get better every day. Everything else will take care of itself."

Follow Jim Trotter on Twitter.

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