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San Diego Chargers defensive end Corey Liuget rests on the sideline during a preseason NFL game against the Arizona Cardinals at the University of Phoenix Stadium on August 27, 2011 in Glendale, Arizona.
Chunks of soil shoot into the air like a polluted fireworks show. Blades of grass fold beneath the weight of cleats-gone-clawing.
San Diego. Dallas. Glendale, Ariz.
All preseason, Corey Liuget has been pushing offensive linemen backward.
On Sunday, he'll be pushed ahead.
The rookie Chargers defensive end will start against the Minnesota Vikings in the team's season opener at Qualcomm Stadium, a token of confidence in the physical Miami native.
Ready or not, the 18th overall draft pick's time has come.
“You don't have a choice,” coach Norv Turner said. “If you're starting, then you better be ready. That ball's going to get kicked off at 1:15, and Corey's going to go out there with the first group, so he has to grow up fast.”
He is, after all, only 21.
Liuget could be a senior now at Illinois, soaking up a blowout Saturday win over South Dakota State, if he didn't leave Champaign after his junior year.
He could be watching Vikings quarterback Donovan McNabb and running back Adrian Peterson on television with moderate interest; he grew up rooting for their divisional rivals, the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears.
But he chose the NFL, and the Chargers chose him.
Location and level aside, Liuget is still not where he wants to be.
“No. I'm not there yet.” Liuget said. “So far, it's been a lot of hard work, and I still have a long way to go. I still have more work to do at making the right steps and using the proper technique.
“I can definitely say I'm comfortable and I feel ready to play at this level. Practice — that's the main thing I have to do now. Practice and continue to get better. Hopefully it'll show on the field.”
His practice behavior may hint at his potential.
Chargers left tackle Marcus McNeill regularly faces Liuget on the team's Mission Valley field.
He calls the 6-foot-2, 300-pound defender "very powerful," "very mobile" and “a very slippery guy for his size.”
“He definitely has what it takes to progress and become one of the better d-linemen, if not one of the elite d-linemen, in the league because of his mentality and his work ethic,” McNeill said. “From what I've seen, he doesn't mind being criticized. He doesn't mind looking to the coach to get help to get better.
“Whenever you have a player who wants to get better and doesn't just rest on their skills they were born with, you're going to develop into a better player. I see that in him. Hopefully it comes in the near future.”
For now, it's a dirty fireworks show.
Offensive linemen sent searching for lost footing.
The Chargers watching, knowing they have a find.