- Associated Press - Tuesday, August 2, 2011

SAN DIEGO (AP) - When the NFL lockout ended, Chargers players reported for physicals and coach Norv Turner sprang a conditioning test on them.

Welcome back to the NFL, Ryan Mathews.

“I think he was caught off guard by the run we had,” Turner said Monday, five days after the second-year running back struggled to keep pace with his fellow skill players.

Mathews said when camp opened that he’d often run on a beach during the 4 1/2-month lockout. As the Chargers ran gassers at Chargers Park _ across the field’s width and back in 16 seconds or less 10 times, with 45 seconds between sprints _ Mathews discovered his beach runs weren’t paying off so well.

“He’s going to get a great opportunity to get in the best condition of his life,” Turner said.

Not one to back down from a challenge, Mathews ran sprints after practices last week, then pronounced himself extra fit. “I feel better than ever,” he said. “I feel fast, I feel quick, I feel strong.”

Mathews missed practices with a foot injury on Sunday and Monday, a momentary detour, at the end of a tough first week for San Diego’s 2010 first-round draft pick.

“He’s got a little bit of a sore toe,” Turner said. “He’s going to practice as soon as he’s comfortable with it. It’s normal training camp stuff.”

Turner sees big things for Mathews this season, starting with the opener Sept. 11 against the Minnesota Vikings.

“I expect him to be outstanding,” the coach said.

Mathews wasn’t shabby in 2010, although he said he topped out at 80 percent in speed and stamina after a high-ankle sprain in the second game. Among the nine running backs drafted last year, he finished first in both yards rushing (678) and touchdowns (seven). His average of 4.3 yards per carry also led the draft class, 48 carries minimum.

“Those stats are nice, but those aren’t things we care about,” Turner said.

With veteran running back Darren Sproles having signed with the Saints, the Chargers are counting on Mathews to help offset his departure. He’ll need to stay healthy, which will allow him to learn in practice how to protect quarterback Philip Rivers from blitzers _ a Sproles speciality _ and when and were to go on pass routes that are a big part of Turner’s diverse offense.

“We want to get him at full speed, we want to get him where he can play, get him into the rhythm of the game _ play no matter what the situation is,” Turner said. “There were some things he wasn’t ready to do because he didn’t practice enough. He’ll be a lot more ready to handle whatever situation comes up this year.”

The Chargers invested heavily in Mathews, moving up 16 spots and drafting him 12th overall, because they saw him as a three-down back.

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