It has been a long process for Chargers safety Derwin James. He has had to be patient during the last two seasons. He has had to rehab and rehab while his team has had an 11-16 record without him.
The defense has struggled to get off the field. At times, they have looked lost without their leader. They blew multiple 17 point leads last season and even a 21-point lead to the Denver Broncos. He had to sit and watch his team go through that.
He has worked hard during the offseason to get back. He worked with receiver Keenan Allen, who also went through numerous injures early in his career.
"It just reaffirms his confidence within himself," Chargers head coach Brandon Staley said. "I think all that he's built within the offseason and during initial training camp is measurable when he puts himself against a premium player, against a premium team. That's going to build even more confidence in his game. I think you could see that out there today. He's in really good shape."
When Staley was hired in January, he knew quarterback Justin Herbert was his leader on offense, and James would be his leader on defense.
"He looks like how he looks every time — in command," explained Staley. "The energy, his technique; I think he's hitting the sweet spot too. He's running the show out there for us, and all that comes with that."
James is the quarterback for the defense. He is wearing the green sticker on his helmet, which means he is relaying the plays from Staley to the defense. While the defense faces the offense, you can hear James scream out offensive shifts or change the defensive scheme.
He has been establishing himself as a leader since his rookie season. He has studied and is going to be the eyes of Staley.
"That's what I love about him, it's like we've been doing this for 10 years," explained Staley. "We're going to keep getting better at it. We're not where we will be, but each day we improve. He's starting to finish my sentences now. He's starting to finish them, then there's an, 'I got you, coach.' That's what you want to hear."
It has been an excellent training camp for James. He has faced off against Allen numerous times during one-on-ones. He has been matchup with veteran tight end Jared Cook during 11-on-11. He has even been face to face against receiver Mike Williams.
"I want to compete every day," said James. "Whoever the best guy is, I want to go against him. That's how I challenge myself and push myself every day."
The Chargers had a joint practice against the San Francisco 49ers at Jack Hammett Sports Complex on Thursday morning. Since James won't be playing any preseason games, this was the first time he would be facing anyone, not in a powder blue or white jersey.
"It's big for me," said the safety. "We're going out here going fast. I played against [49ers TE George] Kittle, one of the best tight ends in the league. Their offense is one of the best in the league. Seeing the looks from them only helped me get better."
Speaking of Kittle, this was the first chance for James to test himself against one of the top tight ends, as he mentioned. This was a matchup that coaches, fans, and even both players wanted to see.
"I was the first one over there against Kittle," explained James. "He wanted to see how he was against me, and I wanted to give him what he wanted. It was good going against him. He's the best, and I feel like I'm the best — why not go against him."
These two practices will help James out because facing an elite tight end in Kittle, will only prepare him more for an exceptional tight end he will face three weeks into the season in Travis Kelce from the Kansas City Chiefs.
Even 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan was impressed with the day James had against his offense.
"Just same thing you see from every time that he's out there," said Shanahan. "He's the man. He's as good as it gets. Coming out of college, we loved him. I just love how carries himself. You know how talented he is but just talking to the guy, how he acts out there, you can tell he's a special guy, as a person and as a talent."
As the season nears, it seems like the more practices that go by, the more James feels physically and mentally ready for his fourth season.
He is ready to lead this defense into a new season.
"I feel like I could go again," said James on level of excitement during practice. "I can go more. With how we built this practice and everything, I got my legs under me, and I'm ready to go."