In 2015, the San Diego Chargers faced many struggles as a team. But perhaps there was no other unit that underperformed more than the 11 individuals who were responsible for field position.
The Chargers’ special teams unit ranked 32nd overall in the NFL. San Diego finished last in multiple special team categories, but what stood out the most was that the Chargers were only able to average 4.2 yards per return, which ranked dead last in the league and was the NFL’s worst average since 2011.
There have been many questions during training camp as to who would be handling kick-return duties. As of this moment, the depth chart for that position reads as follows:
1. Brandon Oliver 2. Javontee Herndon 3. Isaiah Burse
But there is an individual who made his reputation in college as return man, and he is ready to translate that success into the NFL.
Enter DeAndre Reaves.
An undrafted free agent out of Marshall University, Reaves excelled in the return game, setting school records for career kickoff return yards (2,548) and kickoff return average (27.7). In his senior year, the 24-year-old had a highlight game against Western Kentucky, amassing 221 total return yards as well a 97-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. Reaves was voted the 2015 Conference Special Teams Player of the Year, an accolade that he attributes to his many days of preparation while playing for the Thundering Herd.
“From day one at Marshall, it was drilled into my head about how important special teams are,” Reaves told me. “We spent more time than you would imagine on special teams. Then I got the opportunity to start as the kick returner.
“I was blessed to have 10 other guys who loved blocking for me, so it made my job easier–plus the God-given talent and vision. So it was nothing out of the ordinary that I did, it was just those guys executing the schemes and me trusting it. But like I said, we spent hours and hours on special teams, and it showed.”
Dec 26, 2015; St. Petersburg, FL, USA; Marshall Thundering Herd wide receiver Deandre Reaves (19) is named MVP after they beat the Connecticut Huskies at Tropicana Field. Marshall Thundering Herd defeated the Connecticut Huskies 16-10. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
During last year’s free agent period, Chargers general manager Tom Telesco signed former standout return man Jacoby Jones to add some juice to the special teams unit. Unfortunately, that signing never panned out as Jones battled injuries early in the season and was ineffective when he was available on game day. Jones was later released and replaced by Javontee Herndon, who was a member of the practice squad halfway through the year. While Herndon showed flashes of his return ability at times, the return game could never quite recover from its early tailspin.
Since training camp opened, Herndon has been unavailable to practice. According to Tom Krasovic of the San Diego Union-Tribune, Herndon will not be playing in Saturday’s preseason opener due to an undisclosed injury. For Reaves, this is a chance to make the most of this opportunity to gain extra reps in an attempt to climb up the depth chart. But in order for the former Marshall returner to achieve success on special teams, he realizes that having ability is just the beginning.
“It’s really just understanding what’s going on and the blocking schemes,” Reaves said, “then trusting it and hitting it. In my opinion, there’s really no secret to returning the ball. The returner has to trust that the other 10 guys are going to do their job, and as the returner we have to do ours. My off-the-field preparation I’m doing is staying in the film room, then showing I can make plays when we are doing drill work to get those guys to trust me.”
Since arriving in San Diego, Reaves has witnessed and experienced firsthand the trust mentality that has been established at Chargers camp between rookies and veteran players.
“To be honest, the Chargers organization is really family oriented, “Reaves said. “It’s not really one person to single out because I can honestly go to any person on the team, from Phil (Rivers) or even a rookie, and someone is always willing to give advice. The older guys or “vets,” however you want to put it, do not look at us as, ‘Oh, they’re rookies.’ They look at us as, ‘That’s my brother,’ and they’ve welcomed us with open arms. I am truly grateful for that.”
Whether you’re a first-round prospect or an undrafted rookie, getting the chance to play football in the NFL is a rare honor that only a handful of people have ever experienced. On Saturday, the 24-year-old rookie will continue to climb toward his football dreams. But it was on April 30, 2016 where a lifelong wish of Reaves’ was finally fulfilled.
“The day I’ll never forget. My family wanted to have a little get together for my birthday and I was really looking at that day as it was draft day, kind of forgetting it was my birthday. My mom asked me what I wanted for my birthday and my response was, ‘A phone call from a team.’ That day was probably the most nerve-wracking and stressful day to date, and you could see it in my face.
“However, when the call finally came through, I just broke down. I was just filled with joy because we always make wishes and rarely see them come true, but to have that wish come true on my birthday is something I’ll remember for the rest of my life.”
Making the 53-man roster is based upon opportunity that is created in preseason. Opportunities can be created and ceased by those who will perform exceptionally during the next four weeks. In Reaves’ mind, creating his opportunity to make the Chargers roster is not a matter of how, but simply a matter of when.
“I plan to show I’m here to help turn this program around, whether it’s on special teams or offense,” Reaves said. “I hate losing probably more than I like to win, so I’m willing to do whatever it is to get this team rolling again. I feel as though I am an exciting player to watch, so my goal is to make plays when my number is called and be the player who everyone stands up to watch because they know something is about to happen.”