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First Class


Chargers General Manager A.J. Smith is slow to cast judgment on his draft classes, saying that it usually takes three years to measure the success of a new group. But on that scale, the grades after one trimester would put the Bolts’ 2005 first round picks on the President’s list.

“Together I would say that they’ve done better than I would have anticipated,” Chargers Head Coach Marty Schottenheimer said of Luis Castillo and Shawne Merriman. “Luis has played well for us all season in a position that is difficult to transition. I think it’s apparent to all of us the energy and the power that Shawne brings to what we’ve done. To say that I’m pleased would be an understatement.”

Castillo quickly locked down the starting job at left defensive end. His high motor and relentlessness immediately made him a hit with Schottenheimer and defensive coordinator Wade Phillips.

“Luis is probably the most athletic 300-pounder I’ve ever seen,” Schottenheimer said. “He’s got such quick hands and feet. He moves so well and never allows himself to get out of position.”

Since the NFL began recognizing sacks as an official stat in 1982, no rookie has led the Chargers in the category. Merriman will most likely do just that this season. His nine sacks are a team high. They also lead all NFL rookies and all NFL linebackers in the category.

“Shawne is just so big and powerful and can run,” Schottenheimer said. “We’ve seen him run guys down from behind. He’s also run right through offensive linemen to get to the ball. He’s a unique talent.”

On the field, Merriman and Castillo have established themselves as difference makers. Away from the gridiron, the two have developed a strong friendship despite the fact that they’re very different people.

Castillo is a blue collar, New Jersey native who does not sport any tattoos and had to be coerced into buying a modest new SUV after receiving his signing bonus. Merriman has more ink than a Sharpie warehouse, an array of fancy new cars, his own clothing line and a flashy nickname to go with celebration dance that rivals that of former Cincinnati Bengals running back Ickey Woods’ “Ickey Shuffle.”

“Shawne definitely loves the NFL lifestyle,” Castillo joked. “He’s the big flashy football player. I’m a little more laid back. We’re very different people, but we get along really well. It’s a lot of fun to be around him.”

Merriman loves the Chargers, and Chargers fans apparently love him. “Lights Out” signs and 56 jerseys have become common sights at Qualcomm Stadium. Fans have also taken to his sack dance.

“I have people come up to me in the grocery store or the mall doing their own version of my dance,” Merriman said. “It’s hilarious. I’ve had fun with it. I want to show people that I don’t take myself too seriously.”

While everything from their modes to transportation to their styles of play are different, Merriman also has a deep respect for what his classmate and teammate has accomplished.

“Luis is in there in the trenches doing the dirty work so guys like me and Donnie (Edwards) can go make all the plays,” Merriman said. “He’s got a tough job. He gets beat up in there and keeps going at it. It’s selfless guys like him that allow us to accomplish the things that we have as a defense.”

Particularly in a 3-4 defense, the impact of a defensive end can seldom be measured by an individual’s line in the box score. True to his personality, Castillo hasn’t let the numbers game bother him.

“You just have to understand what you’re trying to accomplish as a defense,” Castillo said. “We all buy into it. It feels great when I can go out and pick up a sack or make a handful of tackles, but I know what my role is. If I’m not making plays myself, I’m happy helping other guys make them.”

Individual honors have come from both players throughout the season. Merriman has been named AFC Defensive Player of the Week, Diet Pepsi Rookie of the Week and became the first rookie outside linebacker to make the Pro Bowl since 1989.

Earlier this season, Chiefs Head Coach Dick Vermeil called Castillo “the best defensive lineman I’ve seen come into the league since I returned in 1997.” He was named Player of the Week by the Chargers alumni following his career-high eight-tackle performance against Vermeil’s Chiefs last week.

Because of their draft status, Merriman and Castillo will forever be linked, which is something both they and the Chargers are very happy about.

“It’s awesome for us to be able to stand on the football field together and be lined up next to each other making plays,” Merriman said. “That’s what they brought us here for. Hopefully we’ll be able to make them for years to come. We want to finish a great rookie season with a big performance Saturday and just let that carry into a big second year.”


Safeties Terrence Kiel (ankle) and Bhawoh Jue (knee) did not practice Wednesday while wide receiver Eric Parker (foot) returned to the field. Defensive tackle Jamal Williams (foot) did not work Wednesday and was added to the injury report as questionable.

Keep Winning

Schottenheimer already has more wins than any active coach in the NFL. His 186 wins are tied for seventh most in league history. He’s already secured his 14th season with at least a .500 winning percentage, and a win Saturday would give him a 10-win season for the 11th time in his career. Only Hall of Famers Don Shula and Tom Landry have more 10-win seasons.