From small school to NFL, Chargers' Tolbert has emerged

During his senior season at Coastal Carolina, every day Mike Tolbert stared at a Dallas Cowboys star inside his locker. He didn't dream of playing for America's Team, though. If anything, he was longing for a day when he might be able to stick it to them.

Tolbert's college coach, David Bennett, put the sticker there the spring before Tolbert's final season, after a Cowboys scout (name withheld to protect the guilty) was adamant in the spring of his junior year that the bowling-ball of a running back would never, ever play a down in the NFL. Even now, years later, with Tolbert having a breakthrough season for the suddenly surging Chargers, he speaks about that time with a forthright, determined tone. It still motivates him.

"The scout said I was too small and not fast enough," Tolbert said. "He said I'd never play in the NFL, and that really struck a nerve with me. So my coach put the Cowboys star in my locker, and that motivated me a lot and I ended up being an All-American my senior year and a number of scouts watched my pro day.

"They say I wasn't fast enough, but I ran a 4.52 40 (yard-dash) and as fullback I did the most reps on the bench press. I showed them I really was able to play at this level, and I got a few phone calls to get a shot at the pros, and I took advantage of everything. I'm still here three years later."

Anyone watching Tolbert, 25, rumbling and rolling over the Colts' defense last Sunday night could surely see he belonged on an NFL field. The Chargers' attack sagged with him on the sidelines, allowing the defense to key on the pass.

For all of their offensive stars and prowess, the ever-unheralded Tolbert has become a linchpin for the Chargers. With first-round pick Ryan Mathews off-injured, Tolbert has solidified the run game, balanced the offense and remained a key cog on special teams. Without his production, San Diego might not be riding a four-game win streak into this weekend's divisional clash with Oakland, poised for what I fully expect to be another stellar December march to another AFC West title.

Tolbert was signed by the Chargers as an undrafted free agent in 2008, made the team based on his special teams acumen (he knows virtually every position and is a key member of every unit), ended up starting seven games as a fullback, but carried just 13 times. In 2009, he started three games and though he carried just 25 times (scoring his first touchdown), he averaged 5.9 yards per carry as LaDainian Tomlinson's production was in decline.

Tolbert's agent, Joel Turner, clipped and saved articles that spoke of San Diego's need to draft or acquire a powerful runner for 2010, columns that ignored Tolbert or slighted his talents, always fueling the fire.

"I made sure he saw it all," Turner said.

With Tomlinson gone, the Chargers traded up to draft Mathews 12th overall, but Tolbert also became an offseason project. Despite a crowded backfield with Mathews, Jacob Hester and Darren Sproles, the coaches began transitioning Tolbert to tailback.

"It's been a big transition, but moving from fullback to tailback was not as hard as I expected," Tolbert said. "But it came with a lot more responsibility, and it's definitely something I prepared myself for and a challenge I was ready for. And my coaches and teammates have confidence in me, and that does nothing but bode well for my confidence. I'm proud of what I've done so far, but I know there is a lot of the season left to play."

Right now, Tolbert is in pretty special company. Only two players -- Arian Foster and Peyton Hillis -- have more than Tolbert's nine rushing touchdowns (Tolbert's pace is best overall, as he has 61 fewer carries than either of them). His average of 4.4 yards per carry is among the top 10 in the NFL for all rushers with at least 100 attempts (it's identical to Mathews' average, though the rookie has carried just 87 times). He has great hands for a running back (two catches of 66 yards or longer in his career, including a touchdown).

Tolbert is helping San Diego put games away, rushing 38 times in the fourth quarter for a 4.9 average with three touchdowns. Tolbert has scored at least one rushing touchdown in seven of the last eight games and enters Sunday's game seeking his third-straight 100-yard effort (fourth of the season).

"I didn't really expect to play as much as I have," Tolbert said. "I didn't know how they were going to work it out with me and Ryan and Darren and Jacob all together. Then, with Ryan going down, they said, 'Mike, here's the reins, and take over,' and that's what I was trying to do. Coming into the season, I was ready to do whatever they wanted -- backup fullback, running back, special teams. I was definitely ready, and when I got my opportunity, I was ready to take advantage."

Tolbert's numbers don't look that dramatically different -- minus the long runs, of course -- than what Michael Turner did as a complementary back in this offense prior to signing a hefty free-agent deal with Atlanta in 2008 (the year Tolbert arrived). With Mathews' status iffy again this week and Tolbert on a roll, the Chargers aren't going to pry the ball away from Tolbert right now.

His ascent has mirrored that of his club. San Diego has emerged from yet another early-season slumber, and now stands a game behind Kansas City. If the Chargers run the table in their division, they will be in the playoffs again. Years of past experience overcoming poor Septembers and Octobers have kept this team from panicking.

"We have a lot of winners on our team, and people on our team really hate losing," Tolbert said. "We knew we had to get it right and corrected and get on a win streak, and that's what we're trying to keep doing."

Tolbert's special teams role has been curtailed some now, with him carrying such a load for the offense, but he took the foibles of that unit personally. The Chargers fell to a 2-5 hole due in large part to allowing blocked punts, losing the battle of field position and giving up return touchdowns at an alarming rate.

Injuries to key players -- and a subsequent reliance on new arrivals who weren't certain of the special teams systems and responsibilities -- led to the cavalcade of gaffes, Tolbert said.

"We had a lot of new guys out there, and they didn't really understand the concepts, but now we've got some guys back healthy," he said.

The Chargers have been bolstered by the return of key components throughout the season and have endured a tense period of play. Tolbert believes watching coach Norv Turner and quarterback Philip Rivers remain cool through the slow start led to everyone else exhaling and rising above in the second half of the season.

"When you see your coach and the star quarterback having fun on the sidelines, I'm like, 'Why am I tight?'" Tolbert said.

Regardless of what the Chargers do this month, their success will be measured by January, and whether or not they finally put together a Super Bowl run. And whenever the season does end, and we get a new collective bargaining agreement, they might have to assess Tolbert's place as well.

He's most likely to be bound to them as a restricted free agent, but might catch the eye of a suitor if the qualifying offer is too low. After allowing Michael Turner to leave a few years back, it should make for some interesting decision making.

"He wants a long-term deal," said Joel Turner, Tolbert's agent, "and he wants to be in San Diego. And it would be a travesty for San Diego to lose him like they lost Michael Turner."

The difference between Frazier and Childress

The more I listened to Vikings stars talk about interim coach Leslie Frazier following their win in Washington, the more it became clear just how little they felt for their former coach, Brad Childress.

Minnesota, still a very flawed team, was trying to do a little bit more to aid Frazier's cause, and though it's quite early in the process, I expect Frazier to get strong consideration to retain his position in 2011.

Tight end Visanthe Shiancoe broke down the difference in playing for the two men to, in essence, mere effort. I asked him what Frazier demanded of the team, where to look for differences between this version of the Vikings and the one that clattered through the first 10 games. Again, he parsed much of it down to playing hard.

"It comes down to effort, Shiancoe said, "effort and focusing on our jobs one play at a time."

Sure, I replied, but this is a team filled with millionaires, not even a year removed from a trip to the NFC Championship Game. Effort? Shouldn't that be a given? Was insufficient effort really a problem under Childress?

"Yes, I do believe it was," he said. "Different people approach things differently and their profession differently, and the mentality around here has changed. It's a new regime, and we feel like we have something to prove here."

As Adrian Peterson spoke about Frazier and his intrinsic trust and devotion to the team's former defensive coordinator, I couldn't help but think about what all that he left unsaid indicated about the issues between the former coach and his players.

"It's just the type of man coach Frazier is," Peterson said, trying to explain the culture change afoot. "He's a man of God. He's respected, and you feel like when he talks guys' ears are pinned up and listening to everything that comes out of his mouth.

"It's a feeling I really can't explain. It's just a feeling of being sure about the words coming out of his mouth and trusting him. I felt that vibe with a lot of the guys this week. I feel like that's the biggest difference."

With Peterson battling a sprained ankle and Frazier devoted to running the ball more, particularly early in games (a change long overdue), the Vikings' odds of sustaining this push are not great. No coach can overcome their offensive line issues, the lack of a third-down back, the ailing physical state of Brett Favre. But a few more wins might be enough to merit Frazier a longer look beyond this season.

I've been around teams just trying to say the right thing about the next coach up, and the sincerity and body language of the Vikings as they spoke about Frazier seemed like much more than lip service.

Quick hits

» How about Jamaal Charles averaging 6.5 yards per carry? Pretty amazing. As much heat as some put on Todd Haley for going with the dual backfield with Thomas Jones and keeping Charles' touches under wraps in the first half, it makes sense. He should be primed for a tear into December. What a special player. If he does what I think he will do this month, and this team is right in the playoff hunt, then I'm putting him in the MVP conversation with Rivers, Michael Vick, Tom Brady, and Clay Matthews. No way Matt Cassel is playing this well without this robust run game. Charles is the truth. ...

» Starting to look to me like we could have 10-win teams on the outside of the postseason scene in both conferences. If you're making me handicap it today, I could see the 10-win Bears and 10-win Chiefs both on the outside looking in. ...

» As much as we talk about all the skill players who come back from injuries, and the significance of their presence, no player would be more vital to their club than Brett Keisel. The defensive end is one of the true stars of Pittsburgh's 3-4 scheme, and his lingering hamstring issue has been massive. With Aaron Smith lost until at least the playoffs at the opposite end, the Steelers have been vulnerable (never evidenced more than against the Patriots). There is a very good chance Keisel is back for the huge clash with the Ravens on Sunday night, and his return would be a boon for Pittsburgh.

"We don't talk about it, and it's next-man up, but losing those guys (Smith and Keisel) has been huge," one Steelers defender told me privately a few weeks back. "We say (to the media) that it's not that big of a deal and every team has injuries, but those are huge injuries. We're not the same team without them. You can't just replace them. Those are two guys who make this whole thing go." ...

» One of just many reasons why I still like the Eagles down the stretch (and I tend to think that loss to Chicago, against a well-rested Bears team on a slow track, is going to prove to be a fluke): They lead the NFL, averaging 5.44 yards per rush in the first half of games. That's even better than Kansas City (5.17). This isn't bleeding the clock with a lead against a tired defense that's giving up; this is running for tough yards to establish a lead. That, coupled with what we know is a potent pass attack, are good signs with the weather changing on the East Coast. ...

»Bears lead the NFL with 95 negative plays for minus 365 yards. ...

» Over the last eight weeks, Joe Flacco is the NFL's highest-rated passer (108.2), with 13 TDs and 2 INTs. Cassel (107.3; 18-1), Rivers (106.2; 14-5), and Brady (104.1; 14-2) are close behind. ...

» Only five teams have allowed 50 or more plays over 20 yards this season. Those teams -- Dallas, Oakland, Denver, Arizona, and Seattle -- are a combined 19-36. None of them is even .500. If you can't stop the opponent from collecting explosive plays, shifting momentum and scoring in bunches, you are doomed in this NFL.

The picks are in...

Finally, I enjoyed a 13-3 week with the picks (hooray for beer!), bringing me to 111-65 for the season. This week, give me the Eagles, Pats, Ravens, Chargers, Bears, Jags, Dolphins, Bills, Saints, Chiefs, Packers, Giants, Panthers, Falcons, Rams, and Colts.

Follow Jason La Canfora on Twitter @jasonlacanfora.

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