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49ers vs Chargers: Five Questions with Bolts from the Blue

As we move into the 2010 regular season I am always looking for different ways to learn more about the 49ers weekly opponent. Thus far this preseason we've exchanged FanPosts where each blogger does a Q&A with fans on the site. This week, with the shortened week, we're mixing things up and going with an old standby, the exchange of five questions. John, of Bolts from the Blue, sent me five questions the answers to which he'll be posting at some point later today. In the meantime, he was kind enough to answer my five questions about his Chargers.

The Chargers are an annual preseason opponent of the 49ers and since they generally are the fourth and final preseason opponent, we can never really take too much from the games. Nonetheless, the Chargers are always an interesting team that will be in the playoff hunt again in 2010.

NN: What are the Chargers hoping to get out of this final preseason game? To put it another way, will starters see a lot of playing time (or even any playing time), what positional battles are still to be determined?

Bolts: You will probably see Philip Rivers, Antonio Gates, Ryan Mathews and the rest of the starters for one series on Thursday. It will mostly be to keep the rust off and to try some things. Basically, they want to make sure this "new" offense works as well as they think it does. The defensive starters might be in for more than one series since they have more things to work on (they haven't looked very good), but they'll most likely be out by the second quarter.

Strong Safety, which wasn't even supposed to be a battle, has turned into one. Steve Gregory went from being the "3rd down SS" to what seems like the full-time starter until rookie Darrell Stuckey starts playing better. Another good showing by Gregory and bad showing by Stuckey, and the rookie will see a lot more of the bench than he was expecting. I believe all of the other positions are locked up. Kevin Burnett started last year as the starting ILB and eventually lost his job to Brandon Siler, but this year went right back into the starter's role and nobody is certain why. Siler has looked nothing like the 2009 player that was earning a reputation as a big hitter, but a great game from him in SF could get the coaches rethinking that spot. Buster Davis has essentially locked up the slot WR role, but the better game he has (and the more he shows a newfound ability to stay healthy while taking hits) the bigger role he'll receive in the offense this season.

Join John and I after the jump for a few more questions and answers...

NN: What rookies and/or second year players have caught your attention for the first time in training camp and are worth keeping an eye on during the game?

Bolts: Seyi Ajirotutu has got the town talking (and trying to quickly learn how to pronounce his name). He was signed as an undrafted free agent out of Fresno State for two main reasons: He has the size that this offense covets in their WRs (6'3", 211lbs.) and he was Ryan Mathews' best friend/roommate in college. He was seen as a "raw project" that could make the practice squad with a good camp. Instead, he's had one of the best preseasons of anyone on the team and has taken giant steps forward in his progression each week. He has essentially forced the team to create a spot on the roster for him (which means veteran Josh Reed is probably gone), and continues to look like a professional WR week-in and week-out. He will get a ton of passes thrown his way against the 49ers, and everyone is sitting on the edge of their seats to see what he does with them.

NN: What's the story for you guys at running back with the drafting of Ryan Mathews, the departure of Tomlinson, Sproles making serious money for a 3rd down back, and Jacob Hester seeming solid at the goal line?

Bolts: I've complained over the last few seasons about how boring the running game for the Chargers has been. Hand the ball off to LaDainian Tomlinson, occasionally throw it to Darren Sproles, call the draw to Sproles every so often. It wasn't versatile. Neither guy has the power to fight through tackles and therefore the team was left with limited options as to what they could do on the ground. This year the team has quietly overhauled their half-back situation. 

Ryan Mathews was drafted and looks like a sure-thing for Rookie of the Year if he continues to play the way he has in the preseason. His mix of size, speed and strength is simply stunning, and he will get the bulk of the Chargers carries. Just by having a guy that can fight through tackles like him, the running game already has become more versatile. Add in Mike Tolbert, who was an UDFA RB/FB from Coastal Carolina in 2008 that won the starting FB job from Jacob Hester and then showed his skills as the only power RB on the team late in games in 2009, will get a fair amount of carries and will be the "goal line back". Now we have two power RBs, and they both have fantastic hands as well. Add Darren Sproles to the mix and you now see how this running game can do a little of different things.

Jacob Hester has had a bit of a roller-coaster career. A.J. Smith traded up to grab him in 2008, thinking he could be both the starting FB and the backup RB (kindof like Tolbert is this season). He flamed out as both in preseason, only to be handed the FB job when Tolbert was injured in 2008. He did surprisingly well and was again penciled in as the starter in 2009, only to lose his job to Tolbert once again in the preseason. He made up for it by becoming the best Special Teams player and had a few key, game-winning type plays made in that phase of the game. So far in 2010, Hester has looked fantastic as a runner (which has been a big surprise) and, strangely enough, has spent most of his time as the #1 FB even though that is supposed to be Tolbert's job. I still think Tolbert starts the season as the starting FB, but Hester seems like he may have finally grown into the player that he was drafted to be (good runner, blocker, receiver and special teamer), and that can only help this team and this running game.

NN: Is Norv Turner feeling heat after his first round exit this past year? What is the general consensus opinion on Turner in San Diego?

Bolts: I don't think so. Most of the head from that game has been placed on Nate Kaeding, Antonio Cromartie and Vincent Jackson (who not only had a boneheaded, poorly-timed "Unsportsmanlike Conduct" penalty called against him, but was also arrested on his way to the game for driving with a suspended license). Norv didn't really screw up anything in losing that game, the Jets were simply the worst matchup for them. Norv's regular season and playoff records are the best for any Chargers coach (ever) and Chargers fans are smart enough to realize that while he's not Bill Parcells or Bill Belichick, he's a fine coach and the best one to roam the San Diego sidelines in a long time. It's taken him a few years to win everybody over, but I think the general consensus in San Diego has shifted from having no faith in him to thinking that we may have ourselves a coach that could lead us to a championship.

NN: What's the general expectation for the Chargers this season?

Bolts: I've been adamant about not making predictions past the regular season, and I think a lot of the players, coaches and local media are feeling the same way. So many bizarre things have happened to this team come playoff time (LT's injuries, Rivers' knee, Gates' toe, Jackson's arrests, Merriman's knee, Marlon McCree's fumble, Cromartie's stance against tackling finally rearing it's ugly head) that it would be ridiculous to say "This team should make it to the AFC Championship" or anything similar. With the schedule this team has, and with as good as they've looked in the preseason, they should win 12 or more games in the regular season. In the AFC West, that should be more than enough to win the division title and might even get the team a bye heading into the postseason.