Training days: Chargers enter camp with very few questions

SAN DIEGO -- The San Diego Chargers have no starting jobs to fill, no new schemes to install, no new coaches who need familiarizing with the players or vice versa.

About the only questions that come up at their training camp can be found during lunch time: Will it be the orange chicken, the hamburgers, or perhaps something from the deli tray?

For the Chargers, this summer is all about building on their strong finish in 2007. It's all about fine-tuning a team that came ever so close to reaching the Super Bowl and fully expects to take the next step after nearly beating the New England Patriots in last January's AFC Championship Game.

"Anything less than that would obviously be a big disappointment for us," placekicker Nate Kaeding said. "There's obviously a big sense of optimism here in camp."

Obviously.

It starts with Norv Turner, who is beginning his second year at the Chargers' helm. Turner doesn't bother to insult anyone's intelligence by saying what many coaches like to say this time of year -- that "everyone" is competing for his position. He acknowledges that only a couple of key reserve roles are up for grabs and that some younger players will be battling for spots to round out the 53-man roster.

Fourth-year man Darren Sproles and rookies Jacob Hester and Marcus Thomas are competing to see who becomes the primary understudy for running back LaDainian Tomlinson. Sproles brings experience along with plenty of speed and elusiveness, which gives him the edge. However, the rookies have shown eye-catching flashes. All three catch the ball well, which is a vital for any back in Turner's offense.

The only other notable competition is between Paul Oliver and first-round pick Antoine Cason at nickel cornerback. Oliver looked good in offseason workouts, but Cason seems to have taken at least a slight lead early in camp.

"We have a good number of young, emerging players and this camp is critical for them because they're fighting for playing time," Turner said.

Other "critical" topics at the Chargers' camp concern the health of several key players recovering from injuries. Some are doing better than others, but the general feeling around the team is that most should be ready to play by the Sept. 7 season-opener against Carolina.

The most encouraging sight for the Chargers has been the performance of quarterback Philip Rivers, who underwent offseason surgery to repair a torn ACL in his right knee. He's moving with ease and throwing passes with plenty of zip and accuracy. Through intensive offseason weight training, Rivers also has added some significant muscle to his upper and lower body.

"He's throwing the heck out of the ball," Turner said. "I think people misgauge his arm strength anyway, but there's no question he's gotten more on the ball than he ever has in the past. He's getting ready to have his best year."

"You can't even tell that (Rivers' knee) was hurt," offensive guard Kris Dielman said. "He's out there doing the same thing that he was doing last year at this time."

Tight end Antonio Gates is recovering from an injured toe, but he has been steadily increasing his agility work and should be ready to play against the Panthers.

Center Nick Hardwick is recovering from a foot injury, and the Chargers have veteran Jeremy Newberry and Cory Withrow alternating with the first unit in practice. They hope Hardwick will be ready by the season opener, but it's too early to tell.

The same could be true for nose tackle Jamal Williams, who is recovering from surgeries on both knees. Williams, an 11-year veteran, insists he is as healthy as he has been in the last few years, but the Chargers are keeping him out of drills as a precaution.

Even the injury questions can't dampen the optimism and enthusiasm in the Chargers' camp. The momentum created by last year's surge to the conference title game after a slow start remains strong.

Camp: San Diego

Preseason games:
Aug. 9: Dallas, 7 p.m. ET

Aug. 16: at St. Louis, 8 p.m. ET

Aug. 25: Seattle, 8 p.m. ET

Aug. 29: at San Francisco, 7 p.m. ET

So, too, is the comfort the players have with Turner, whose lower-keyed approach was a stark contrast to the harder-edged style of his predecessor, Marty Schottenheimer.

"Year Two with Norv Turner has been pretty good," Dielman said. "We all like Norv, we like the way he runs camp."

Not much needs to be said about the mission at hand.

"I think now there's just an understanding of what it's going to take to win the championship," Rivers said. "We don't have to talk about it as much."

"The journey is long, but you don't worry about the end of the journey," Tomlinson said. "John Wooden said it best: You don't worry about the championships. The great time you have and the fun part about it is going through that process, getting there, and then all of a sudden you look and you've won a championship."

Have a question for Vic on anything NFL related? Don't just sit there -- send it to AskVic@nfl.com, and the best questions will be answered throughout the season right here on NFL.com.

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