Rookie Harris to protect Rivers vs Raiders

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(Eds: Adds details, quotes.)By BERNIE WILSONAP Sports Writer

NFL debuts don't come much bigger than the one Mike Harris will have Monday night for the San Diego Chargers.

The undrafted rookie will be counted on for nothing less than helping to keep Philip Rivers in one piece in the opener on the road against the rival Oakland Raiders.

Harris will start against the team he rooted for as a kid because Jared Gaither, who helped stabilize the floundering Bolts late last season, wants to be fully recovered from back spasms before returning. Gaither has been out since July 28 and the Chargers don't know when to expect him back.

Harris isn't flinching in the face of the big assignment, which is to protect Rivers' blind side.

''I was born to do this and I'm going to take great pride in my work next Monday and just leave it all out there on the field,'' said Harris, who played at UCLA. ''I can't have any slippage on that left side or it will cost us.''

Monday night begins a season that will be pivotal in so many ways for the Bolts. Southern California's only NFL team has missed the playoffs the last two seasons and has only one playoff win the last four seasons. Another mediocre showing could cost coach Norv Turner his job.

Rivers is trying to recover from a debilitating 25 turnovers last season, including 20 interceptions. The left side of the offensive line is new, with Harris stepping in for Gaither, who in turn replaced the injured Marcus McNeill last season, and Tyronne Green replacing Kris Dielman, the hard-nosed left guard who retired due to the effects of a concussion.

Harris was born in Oakland and grew up in the Los Angeles area. He said his father raised him as a Raiders fan. That allegiance disappeared the minute he signed with the Chargers.

''I know they hate us,'' Harris said. ''We have to be prepared for a fight. It's a rivalry. With them knowing that I'm starting, I'm going to get all the bullets shot at me. I'm going to play hard. There's no excuse for rookie mistakes or anything like that. I've got to just do everything it takes to win.''

Harris has been working with the No. 1 offense since Gaither's been out, so he expected to survive the roster cutdowns.

''I never had any doubts I was going to make the team,'' he said. ''Being able to start, that's a great honor for me to have. That just comes with the preparation. Each practice until Monday night has to be perfect. I have to go out there and have no mental mistakes, my technique has to be proper and I've just got to be on the same level as my teammates and constantly keeping the quarterback clean.''

.Until the Chargers beat the Raiders in last season's finale, Oakland had won three straight in the series. The Raiders took great delight in manhandling the Chargers, including the game at San Diego in November in which linebacker Kamerion Wimbley had four of Oakland's six sacks. The Raiders overwhelmed left tackle Brandyn Dombrowski, who was filling in for McNeill that night. Dombrowski is hurt. Wimbley is no longer with the Raiders.

The Raiders will again be a handful for the Chargers, who likely will be without running back Ryan Mathews as he recovers from a broken collarbone. Green will have to help center Nick Hardwick against tackle Richard Seymour, which will force the Chargers to have tight end Randy McMichael help Harris, who will line up opposite Oakland's Matt Shaughnessy.

Rivers has confidence in the rookie.

''It's high,'' the QB said. ''There's no reason for it not to be. We've watched him the last four games in preseason, and anything we've done in the preseason that hasn't been positive has had nothing to do with Mike Harris. So, it's not as if he just showed up here today and said, `Hey, I'll be ready to go.' The group we've practiced with the last month is the group that's going to play on Monday night. We've had quite a long time to get prepared for this group to play at a high level.''

Said Turner: ''I like the way he's played in the preseason. Obviously, it steps up another notch right now, but he's done a good job preparing.''

Harris knows his teammates are counting on him.

''Physically, mentally, I'm ready. Now I'm just honing in and getting in that playbook and watching film and knowing my opponent before I go up against him,'' he said.


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Tagged: Chargers, Mike Harris, Raiders, Philip Rivers, Jared Gaither

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