Charg­ers will keep it tight

Los Angeles Times - - SPORTS - By Mike DiGio­vanna

They have a future Hall of Famer in An­to­nio Gates and a ta­lented un­der­study in Hunter Henry.

SAN DIEGO — The un­der­study is ready for a lead­ing role. That was ev­i­dent last sea­son when Charg­ers rookie tight end Hunter Henry, a sec­ond-round pick out of Arkansas in 2016, caught 36 passes for 478 yards and eight touch­downs and was an ef­fec­tive blocker in the run­ning game.

The star is not ready to yield the spot­light. An­to­nio Gates, who turns 37 on Sun­day, is back for his 15th NFL sea­son, need­ing one scor­ing catch to break Tony Gon­za­lez’s record of 111 touch­down re­cep­tions for a tight end, and he showed lit­tle slip­page while catch­ing 53 passes for 548 yards and seven touch­downs last sea­son. So what gives? Noth­ing if you’re the Charg­ers, who stand to ben­e­fit by hav­ing Gates, a prob­a­ble Hall of Famer, and Henry, one of foot­ball’s best young tight ends, share the po­si­tion when the team moves to Los An­ge­les this sea­son.

“We can both con­trib­ute a lot to­gether,” Henry, 22, said af­ter Wed­nes­day’s prac­tice, part of a three-day manda­tory mini­camp that ends Thurs­day. “I’m ready to take on a big­ger role, I’m con­fi­dent in my abil­i­ties, but he’s proved him­self for 14 years; I’ve proved it for one. I’m try­ing to get to that level. I’m try­ing to learn from him ev­ery sin­gle day.”

The 6-foot-5, 250-pound Henry de­scribed as “un­be­liev­able” the ex­pe­ri­ence of serv­ing an NFL ap­pren­tice­ship un­der Gates, who has caught 897 passes for 11,192 yards dur­ing his dis­tin­guished ca­reer.

“He’s gonna go down as one of the great­est tight ends to ever play foot­ball,” Henry said. “He’s an awe­some guy — easy to learn from, easy to watch, easy to pick things up from.”

On the field, Henry watches how Gates reads de­fenses and sets up routes for later in games, how he po­si­tions his hands and feet on cer­tain blocks, and how he’s able to “slow the game down.”

Off the field, Henry is learn­ing how to “treat your body as a busi­ness,” how to pre­vent in­juries by tak­ing ice baths, stretch­ing and warm­ing up prop­erly and how to men­tally pre­pare for each work day.

“It’s a phys­i­cal game,” said Henry, who tied Tampa Bay’s Cameron Brate for most touch­downs for a tight end in 2016. “You have to be ready to go each and ev­ery Sun­day.”

Gates stresses the im­por­tance of main­tain­ing fo­cus and not think­ing suc­cess as a rookie will guar­an­tee suc­cess as a sopho­more.

“You see so many play­ers come in and have one or two big years, and then they lose fo­cus,” Gates said. “I per­son­ally think you should treat ev­ery year like your first, be­cause when you come into some­thing, you’re not es­tab­lished. You have to prove to ev­ery­one, ‘This is what I can do. This is who I am.’

“Some­times, when guys have suc­cess — and I don’t see this in him, be­cause he’s a very level-headed kid, a very hard worker — but I’ve seen guys lose their fo­cus. It’s some­thing I con­tinue to talk to my kids about. Do what you know is right, and what got you to that level.”

First-year Charg­ers coach An­thony Lynn has “no doubt Henry can be a No. 1,” but Gates and Henry are more of a 1 and 1A in the eyes of of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Ken Whisen­hunt. The Charg­ers run plenty of two-tigh­t­end pack­ages and can base play­ing-time de­ci­sions on which tight end bet­ter fits a par­tic­u­lar de­fense.

“It worked pretty good last year — both of them were pro­duc­tive, and we’re go­ing to try to uti­lize both this sea­son,” Whisen­hunt said. “It’s good to see An­to­nio out here. He’s look­ing good. But we’re not go­ing to ig­nore the fact that Hunter is re­ally com­ing along as a young tight end in the league.

“I’m sure there will be times when both are on the field, and there will be other plays where we’re try­ing to work them in. When you’ve got guys like that, it’s a good prob­lem to have when you’re try­ing to bal­ance all those things.”

Nuts and Bolts

Lynn had stern words for the Charg­ers af­ter Tues­day’s prac­tice, which the coach de­scribed as “slug­gish” and filled with mis­takes and fouls. He was much more pleased with Wed­nes­day’s ef­fort. “The en­ergy was back, the de­fense had a re­ally good day,” Lynn said. “The of­fense made some plays, but the de­fense was on top of it. Guys were strip­ping the ball out, run­ning to the ball and get­ting pass breakups.” ... Dur­ing the red-zone por­tion of Wed­nes­day’s prac­tice, 35year-old quar­ter­back Philip Rivers, not known for his mo­bil­ity, ran a read-op­tion play. “I think it’s al­ways fun to do those kinds of things in OTAs,” Whisen­hunt said. “You’ll prob­a­bly see less of that in-sea­son, but you never know. If he’s feel­ing frisky one day, we may take a shot at it.” … Charg­ers owner Dean Spanos at­tended Wed­nes­day’s prac­tice.

mike.digio­vanna@la­times.com Twit­ter: @MikeDiGio­vanna

K.C. Al­fred San Diego Union-Tri­bune

HUNTER HENRY (86) had a solid rookie sea­son with Charg­ers, catch­ing 36 passes, eight for touch­downs.

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