Jim Harbaugh's new approach brings back Chargers legend Nick Hardwick to coach

For someone who once thought he’d never coach, Nick Hardwick found himself in the strangest of places:

Sitting in an Indiana high school, as midnight approached, breaking down film.

“I was getting four hours of sleep a night,” he recalled Monday, “and I was like, ‘Well, if I’m doing this for free and actually donating money, why would I not do this at another level, one that I’m more familiar with?’ ”

That’s part of what led Hardwick back home, to the Chargers, the former Pro Bowl center now an offensive line assistant.

A veteran of 11 NFL seasons, Hardwick, 42, is making his professional coaching debut with the only franchise he has ever known and for a boss who has spent the last three months preaching the importance of the offensive front.

Jim Harbaugh hasn’t stopped talking about his trench-first philosophy since his introductory news conference in February. Just last week, he called offensive linemen “weapons.”

The Chargers on Thursday used their first pick in the draft — No. 5 overall — on Notre Dame tackle Joe Alt. They also just picked up the fifth-year option on the contract of left tackle Rashawn Slater.

“To have a coach say that offensive linemen are weapons and they’re valued,” Hardwick said, “that’s pretty awesome.”

Under Harbaugh, the Chargers will be playing offense closer to the ground. They’ll still feature record-setting quarterback Justin Herbert, but the roster is being reshaped to improve and toughen the running game.

Harbaugh and new general manager Joe Hortiz allowed the more elusive Austin Ekeler to depart in free agency and replaced him with a bruising Gus Edwards and an explosive J.K. Dobbins.

In the sixth round Saturday, the Chargers drafted Troy running back Kimani Vidal, who stands only 5 feet 8 but packs 213 pounds on that compressed frame.

“He just runs through arm tackles, can make guys miss, take a hit, stay on his feet, great balance, strong,” Hortiz said. “[Defensive backs] are closing in on him, he’ll punch them with a stiff arm and just keep going.”

Dobbins is coming back from a torn left Achilles tendon and said Monday he’s determined the shake the “injury prone” label after being limited to nine games over the last three seasons with Baltimore.

In 24 career games, Dobbins has averaged 5.8 yards per carry. As a rookie in 2020, he ran for nine touchdowns during the regular season and one more in the playoffs.

He and Edwards combined to rush for more than 1,500 yards that season playing under offensive coordinator Greg Roman, who is now in the same position with the Chargers.

Dobbins was asked what reuniting with Edwards in this “Ravens West” offense might look like in 2024.

“I think it’ll look beautiful,” he said. “A lot of people call this a passing league, but I think that you have to run the ball to win a Super Bowl. If you look at the teams that win a Super Bowl, they can run the ball. They can control the clock. If we’re both good, it’ll look great, beautiful.”

With all the ground-game talk, it’s easy to understand why Hardwick called this opportunity “pretty spectacular.”

He said former Chargers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt told him late in his career that if he ever wanted to coach to just call. And Hardwick’s response?

“I was like, ‘There’s absolutely no way I do that,’ ” he said. “And here I am.”

With his playing career ending in 2014, Hardwick said his two young sons, Hudson and Theodore, drew him back to the game and to coaching.

The family was living in Indiana, just four houses down from Westfield High. Hardwick said he walked into the school and offered his services as an assistant — and was told no thanks.

Instead, he coached peewees — second- and fourth-graders — for two years before moving up to the high school.

With his sons now 12 and 10, Hardwick said he felt the time was right to attempt to pursue a more serious coaching position. He let it be known to the Chargers that he was interested.

So, when Harbaugh called two months ago, Hardwick answered. Well, at least the second time Harbaugh called he answered. Not recognizing the number, Hardwick didn’t pick up the first time.

After receiving a text that Harbaugh was attempting to reach him, Hardwick connected with the new No. 1 Charger.

“You feel it in your heart a little,” Hardwick. “ ‘Oh, God, this is happening. This is real.’ ”

In the course of that single phone conversation, Hardwick was offered the position and accepted — “Coach Harbaugh calls, you say yes’” — and he was on his way in a job Hardwick described as dream-like.

“I’ll be honest, I can’t believe that they let me do this,” he said. “I think that every morning when I wake up and I’m driving to work. ‘I can’t believe they let me in this place. My key still works.’ I’ve only been here two months, but it’s so special.”

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