COSTA MESA — Alohi Gilman seemed perplexed after the Chargers’ training camp session Tuesday at Jack Hammett Sports Complex, a rare moment when he appeared uncertain about what to do next, how to react to a situation that suddenly cast him in an unfamiliar position.
Then he praised a reporter’s floppy blue hat.
Gilman paused again.
A reporter had just informed Gilman that Chargers defensive coordinator Derrick Ansley had just described Gilman as being as cool as the other side of the pillow. Ansley also praised Gilman for his level-headed play, for his calm demeanor and his ability to play a key position impactfully.
Gilman was hung up on one thing, though.
“What did he say?” Gilman said, asking a reporter to repeat Ansley’s comment.
Gilman, a fourth-year defensive back from Notre Dame, paused again.
He considered the words carefully before answering.
“I’ll take that as a compliment, I guess,” he said, laughing. “I just try to come out here and be me. Do me. That’s been my mentality since I was in high school. I just come out here and do me, have fun, live in the moment and everything just flows the right way if you put the mentality to it.
“That means a lot.”
Gilman seized a starting position in the Chargers’ secondary late last season, after largely playing a supporting role for the first few weeks and months. Now, with camp at its midway point and with the first of three exhibitions approaching Saturday at SoFi Stadium, he appears to be entrenched as a starter.
Most impressively, Gilman and Derwin James Jr. have formed a strong connection as the Chargers’ likely starters at safety when the season begins Sept. 10. Gilman, listed at 5-foot-10 and 201 pounds, lacks the stature of his more heralded teammate, but he’s just as important to the Chargers’ defense.
James, at 6-2 and 215 pounds, is difficult to miss whether he’s on the field or on the sideline. He seems to be in perpetual motion, a whirlwind of activity who is invariably close to the ball whether it’s a running or a pass play. He’s continually exhorting and congratulating his teammates, depending on the moment.
Gilman’s hometown is Laie, Hawaii.
James hails from Haines City, Florida.
It’s not as if Gilman plays in James’ shadow.
It’s just that his game is significantly different from the highly versatile James.
“I think Alohi has been as calm as the other side of the pillow,” Ansley said, a slight malaprop that initially went undetected until a closer listening of the audio was made later in the day. “He’s a guy who has been with us three (previous) years now. A lot of reps have been invested in him. He’s invested a lot into the defense.
“You can see a lot of those dividends paying off now. He’s got his hands on a lot of passes in this camp. He’s kind of the guy who’s got everyone lined up along with Derwin. He’s a calm presence back there, very instinctive. He’s tough, and he’s a great person. We’re happy that he’s here.”
Cornerback J.C. Jackson returned to the practice field after sitting out Saturday’s practice and a scrimmage Sunday because of soreness in his right knee. It’s likely to be a long, slow process as he builds back the strength in his knee after rupturing his patellar tendon Oct. 23.
“Just part of the process of going through a tough injury, and there’s going to be a tough way back,” Chargers coach Brandon Staley said after Sunday’s scrimmage. “We’re just phasing him back in with the recommendations from the medical staff. He’s going to have some good days, he’s going to have some tough days, and that’s part of coming back from an injury like that. He has to build his strength up, and that’s going to happen over the course of all of training camp.”
Wide receiver John Hightower caught a long touchdown pass from backup quarterback Easton Stick on the last play of practice, another in a string of impressive routes that have resulted in receptions during camp. Stick pumped his fist in celebration as Hightower sprinted into the end zone.
“He’s making a lot of plays,” wide receiver Keenan Allen said. “John’s a guy who came in last year and from the first moment I told Coach (Staley), ‘Hey, this guy’s got some juice.’ He’s been showing us what he’s capable of. He’s just making plays out there. His speed, for sure. He’s got the juice, so to speak.
“He can make guys miss in a phone booth.”