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Sproles Leaves Hole to Fill

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Getty Images
    Running back Darren Sproles #43 of the San Diego Chargers walks to the field prior to playing against the San Francisco 49ers at Qualcomm Stadium on December 16, 2010 in San Diego, Calif.

    The little man was a big mismatch.

    The departure of Darren Sproles for New Orleans, all 5-foot-6 of him, leaves a big hole in the San Diego Chargers' offense.

    Besides being among the NFL's best return men for parts of his six-year tenure in San Diego, Sproles also was a key to coach Norv Turner's offense, especially an aerial attack that ranked among the NFL's top three in passer rating since 2008.

    "Those are big shoes to fill, they really are," Chargers running back Ryan Mathews said.

    Sproles had deceiving strength and Turner new that when he called a pass against a gambling defense Sproles would do his part to protect quarterback Philip Rivers.

    "Sproles was one of the best I've ever seen at picking up blitzes," backup quarterback Billy Volek said.

    A pass to Sproles also meant trouble for defenders, with the back turning short receptions into first downs or touchdowns, scoring from 57, 61 and 81 yards in the last three years.

    "He was the smallest guy on the field," said running back Mike Tolbert, "but he was also the quickest guy. So it was hard to see him first off, and then it's hard to cover him or catch him when you do see him."

    The Chargers are deeper at wide receiver than a year ago, so they may not need either Tolbert or Mathews to get near, let alone match, the team-high 59 receptions Sproles made last year. Lead receiver Vincent Jackson, who missed most of last season, is back with the club.

    But outlet passes to backs are a big part of San Diego's offense and already this camp Turner has called a heavy dose of passes for Mathews, who had 22 catches last year.

    San Diego's leading rusher last year, Tolbert looks like the natural receiver among the backs.

    "I've always been comfortable with my hands," said the fourth-year player, who had 25 catches last year and matched Sproles at nearly nine yards per reception. "Growing up, that's one of the main things they instilled in us in Pop Warner ball and middle school and high school — to make it where you want to go, you've got to be able to catch the ball. You've got to be able to block. You can't just run."

    Mathews, a first-round draft pick in 2010, is still learning his blitz keys. In training camp, he has looked sharp on some pass routes, uncertain on others.

    Fullback Jacob Hester, who was a tailback at LSU, matched the speedier Mathews with 6.6 yards per reception last year.

    Rookie Jordan Todman, who drew comparisons to Sproles from some draft analysts, has been busy taking handoffs and catching passes, as the Chargers try to offset practice time lost to the NFL lockout.

    Drafted in the sixth round out of Connecticut, the 5-9, 193-pound Todman came to camp in excellent shape. He has flashed power to go with quickness, but he heard groans from the crowd when he let a perfect pass bounce off his hands during a recent practice at Qualcomm Stadium.

    Chargers fans appreciate running backs who catch passes, if only because some of the best at it have worn San Diego's blue-and-gold.

    There was Lionel "Little Train" James, a 5-6 sparkplug who led the AFC in receptions in 1985 with 86. Later came LaDainian Tomlinson, who had 50 or more receptions in his eight seasons in San Diego. His 100 catches in 2003 is a franchise record.

    Volek, a Charger since 2006, noted that only a season ago, the offense overcame the loss of Tomlinson.

    "This is kind of like when LT left," he said. "Sproles stepped up. Tolbert stepped up. Jacob stepped up. Ryan stepped up.

    "We wish Sproles the best of luck. I think he's going to continue to have a great career in New Orleans. But right now, our guys are really stepping up."