Bolts hope to avoid rushing rookie tackle

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Bolts hope to avoid rushing rookie tackle

By Kevin Acee
UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER
May 15, 2006



Marcus McNeill is a huge canvas, a large body of work to be refined.
“His potential is high,” said Jimmy Raye, the Chargers' director of college scouting. “ ... There are still a couple levels he can ascend to.”

The Chargers' hope is they are afforded the luxury of molding this mountain of a man without having to rely on him right away.

The team's ability to be patient revolves around the left foot of Roman Oben, who has had two offseason surgeries to repair damage more severe than it was initially thought when he went down in the middle of last season.

Should Oben return to full strength in time to be the team's starting left tackle for the season opener, it will allow McNeill time to watch and learn with the likely goal of him assuming the starting job in 2007.

Head coach Marty Schottenheimer said he plans on Oben being healthy. Oben, just four weeks removed from the second surgery, said he is on track to do so but is careful not to predict even an approximate date he will return to full-speed.

“Whether I play preseason or we take it easy (in preseason),” he said, “when we get to opening day my plan is to be the left tackle.”

Should Oben, who most likely will not meaningfully test his foot until late July, not return in time, McNeill becomes not just the future but the present at one of the most important positions on the offense.

With classic rookie bravado, McNeill maintains he is ready. But even he knows what would be best.

“I've heard he's a great guy, a guy I look forward to learning from,” McNeill said of Oben. “Whatever happens is going to happen. Nobody knows yet. All I know right now is we have a great veteran in front of me and I plan on learning from him.

“That's what I'm looking for. This isn't some place where they already have me chalked in because they don't have a left tackle at all and I have to (start) right away. I actually get to learn from a guy. Even if the coaches do feel like giving me the starting job, I still get to learn from him throughout the season.”

The plan has long been to use this draft to bring in a left tackle to groom under Oben. When it became clear Oben's injury threatened his 2006 season, there was simply more urgency.

Oben has always been liberal in sharing his knowledge gained in 10 seasons in the league. He has been in this position with incoming rookies before and vows to impart all he can to McNeill.

“I've heard he's a good kid,” Oben said. “I love working with young guys. You develop your habits your first two years (in the NFL). You get better each year, but those initial years you learn how to prepare, how to study, how to manage all those little things.”

McNeill, who weighs 336 pounds and is 6-foot-7 with a wingspan like that of a small plane, might prove to be the Chargers' left tackle well into the teens of this century. But it would be best if he has time to learn under new line coach Jack Henry and Oben.

Offensive tackles taken in the NFL draft are, most often, projects.

Rare is the Orlando Pace or Jonathan Ogden or, from this year's draft, D'Brickashaw Ferguson, who is expected to be a dominant blocker from the beginning.

This is particularly true of those who are expected to play on the left side and protect the quarterback's blind side.

McNeill, who will stay on the left side and work behind Leander Jordan this spring, is working on refining his fundamentals and technique. He appears to be nimble for a man his size and possesses a natural strength, though the Chargers would hope both attributes improve with training at this level.

“He's going to see some speed he's never seen before,” Assistant General Manager Buddy Nix said.

McNeill was advertised as coachable, and so far he has been. In the few days he has had it, he has immersed himself in the playbook. And he responded well to instruction during the weekend Rookie Orientation.

“The left tackle has the quarterback's blind side,” McNeill said. “You can end his career as fast as he has it. They put a lot of trust in you.”

They just hope they don't have to too quickly.

http://www.signonsandiego.com/sports/chargers/20060515-9999-1s15chargers.html
 
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