By Jay Posner
UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER
August 31, 2005
SEAN M. HAFFEY / Union-Tribune
Chargers third-string quarterback Cleo Lemon continues to draw praise from coaches, but will he ever get a chance to start?
Cleo Lemon file
College: Arkansas St.
Ht.,wt.: 6-2, 215
Experience: 2nd NFL season
Acquired: Free agent (2003)
Hometown: Greenwood, Miss.
Notable: Career leader at Arkansas State with 7,706 passing yards.
Ask wide receiver Kassim Osgood about his neighbor in the Chargers' locker room and this is the first thing he says about Cleo Lemon:
"He's a really patient person."
In the last five years Lemon has journeyed from Arkansas State through NFL training camps, NFL Europe, Arena Football tryouts, arenafootball2 and finally to the Chargers, where he has advanced from practice squad quarterback in 2003 to fourth string last year to third string.
He has been quite visible this summer, playing a quarter or two in each of the Chargers' three exhibition games – a trend that is expected to continue tomorrow night against San Francisco at Qualcomm Stadium.
But then what?
The quarterback directly in front of him on the depth chart, Philip Rivers, was the fourth player selected in the draft a year ago and was guaranteed almost $18 million by the Chargers. The team's starter, Drew Brees, went to the Pro Bowl last season.
And Lemon? What was that Osgood said about patience?
"It's frustrating, because I feel I can play," the 6-foot-2, 215-pound Lemon said recently. "Even though there are good guys in front of me, I want to be out there. But at the same time, I know that it's a grind. At the quarterback position, it's just going to take time and the key is for me to try to get better every day."
On that account, there appears to be no debate he has succeeded. Lemon has improved throughout his time with the Chargers, particularly in the departments of accuracy and touch – "He used to throw every ball 99 mph regardless of whether the (receiver) was 50 yards away or 5 yards away," coach Marty Schottenheimer said – and for whatever they're worth, his statistics this summer have been impressive (63 percent completion rate, zero interceptions).
"I have all the confidence in the world that I can play quarterback in this league," Lemon said. "I know in my heart and in my mind that I can get the job done. It's just going to take a team to give me that opportunity to get out there and get in that fire and show them what I can do."
That he has made it to this point is mildly amazing, considering the "windy road" Lemon said he traveled from his hometown of Greenwood, Miss., (about 90 miles north of Jackson) to San Diego.
He played collegiately at Arkansas State, where his senior team in 2000 went 1-10, including a season-opening loss in double-overtime to a North Carolina State team quarterbacked by a freshman named Rivers. The same Rivers whom Lemon roomed with this summer at training camp.
"It's neat now," Rivers said. "We're both on the same team, he's a great guy and we've had a lot of fun together."
They were on opposite sides of the field that night in Raleigh, N.C., in a game both recalled for being played "in a monsoon," as Lemon said.
"Sideways rain," Rivers said. "We threw it 59 times (actually 57)."
Lemon was playing with a partially torn ACL in his knee, which helped prevent him from being drafted the next spring. He missed the 2001 season after undergoing surgery, then signed with Baltimore, which sent him to NFL Europe. He returned home, however, when Berlin put him on its practice squad.
Baltimore released him after training camp that summer, and Lemon spent the fall working as a substitute teacher in Jonesboro, Ark., trying to make ends meet. The next year he was in training camp with the Memphis Xplorers of arenafootball2 when the Chargers, Packers and Dolphins all called in the same week. His first stop was San Diego, and when they made him an offer, he signed. He was on the practice squad in 2003 and then spent last year in the rare role as the No. 4 quarterback behind Brees, Rivers and Doug Flutie.
"It worked out for me and it showed a lot for them to invest that (time) in me and help me develop in this system," Lemon said.
Again, though, the question is what happens now?
"I don't have any doubt he can play in the league," Schottenheimer said. "But you've got to go play. You've got to have a chance to do it."
Lemon, 26, would love for that chance to come with the Chargers, but he understands the odds are against it, at least in the near term.
"A lot of it is timing," Rivers said. "You've got Drew, who had the great year last year, and then I'm here and Cleo's here. We're all young (Rivers is 23, Brees 26)."
Whatever happens, Lemon is drawing a paycheck as an NFL player. He got to play at Lambeau Field a few weeks ago and in less than two weeks he will get to wear a uniform for the first time at a regular season game.
"It's a great time," he said. "I'm still in the NFL. I want to hit the field and I'm confident I am going to hit the field, but just to be in the position I am now, I'm living the dream."
Nuts 'n' Bolts
The Chargers reduced their roster to 65 by placing tackle Courtney Van Buren (knee surgery) on injured reserve and releasing center David Brandt and tight end Sean Brewer. Van Buren missed all but one game last season with a knee injury. The roster must be cut to 53 by 3 p.m. Saturday.
Tomorrow's game is not a sellout and will be blacked out locally. It will air on tape delay at 10:30 p.m. on KFMB Channel 8. (If the game is not over by 10:30, the broadcast will start as soon as the game is complete.)
The starters (except for LaDainian Tomlinson and Antonio Gates) will be in for about 15-20 plays tomorrow, Schottenheimer said. Defensive ends Igor Olshansky, Luis Castillo and Jacques Cesaire are expected to play, but linebacker Shawne Merriman and wide receivers Vincent Jackson and Malcom Floyd will not. Defensive end DeQuincy Scott is available but might be held out.
Schottenheimer reiterated he has been told Merriman will miss "a minimum of two weeks," but added, "I understand that he doesn't share that (opinion) and I admire his optimism."