LA JOLLA — Linebackers Ty Allert and Billy Ray Smith are the Chargers' version of Mutt and Jeff, only they're more like Mutt and Mutt.
Allert and Smith--look-alikes and sound-alikes--go just about everywhere together, and that now includes the defensive huddle.
With inside linebacker Thomas Benson unsigned, Allert has moved into the starting lineup, where Smith has been for the last three seasons. Smith and Allert rejoiced about it Tuesday as they sat together in Smith's white sports car.
Smith: "Gee whiz, Ty. When I was at Arkansas, I helped recruit you, boy. But you went to Texas instead. Bad move. Did you start four years?"
Allert: "Yeah, Billy."
Smith: "Well, you would have started at least three years at Texas. And we could have been book ends."
Allert: "Darn it, I blew it."
Smith: "Well, at least we're out there at the same time now. Opponents will have to contend with our Allert-Smith tag-team combo. But then, so will our own coaches."
Allert: "I feel sorry for 'em, Billy."
Smith is a borderline all-pro, and Allert is a borderline weak link. No one quite knows--including Charger coaches--if Allert can make everyone forget Benson at inside linebacker. But if speed and toughness matter--and they usually do on a football field--there's a good chance he will.
In his rookie season last year, Allert was voted the Chargers' best special teams player, an award usually not given to a softy. Allert said he delivered his share of "tow-outs," which is football player jargon for putting an opponent on a stretcher.
Asked to reminisce about his hardest hit, Allert said he couldn't remember any in particular.
Smith said: "Yeah, that's because he made the hits. His head gets a little foggy on him."
Allert, who grew up in Houston, played high school football for his dad, Buzzy. One year, he injured his jaw, and Buzzy took him to the doctor. The doctor told Ty it was broken, and--according to Buzzy--Ty got a little teary-eyed.
"What's wrong, son?" the doctor asked.
"There goes my football season," Ty said.
"If you're man enough, you can play with it," the doctor said. "I'll wire it and you can practice today, if you're man enough."
"I'm man enough!" Ty screamed.
Buzzy said Tuesday: "Poor Ty had to be fed through a straw for a while, and he lost 14 or 15 pounds. But he played six games with a wired jaw. Heck, when he was at Texas his sophomore year, he played the whole season with a bad shoulder. Should have had surgery, but he played all the way through to the Cotton Bowl. He couldn't even lift his arm that day."
Buzzy also was a toughie. A defensive end, he played at Southwest Texas State, plus two seasons with the Detroit Lions and a few more in Canada. Later, he coached high school ball in Houston, where he had future NFL players such as Miami's Greg Cook and Washington's R.C. Thielemann.
"R.C. got to play against Ty last season," Buzzy said, "and he told Ty, 'I remember you when you were a itty bitty ol' poot running around practice.' Ty got a kick out of that."
The Chargers still think Ty is itty bitty. A year ago, Allert, 6-feet 2-inches, was an outside linebacker and weighed 233 pounds (the same as Smith). Going into this season, he was projected as a starter on the right side (opposite Smith), but then the Chargers traded for all-pro linebacker Chip Banks.
So the Chargers told Allert to gain weight, because they were moving him to inside linebacker.
"It's harder for me to put it on than take it off," Allert said. "My body is naturally at 235 pounds, so I had to concentrate on eating a lot. I'm up to about 240 now, but that's only because I keep telling myself to eat late at night, stuff like that."
Linebacker coach Mike Haluchak said Allert has improved "1,000%" from last season.
"He has good speed and is an excellent cover guy," Haluchak said. "Sure, we're concerned about his lack of size, but he has that speed."
The Chargers plan on blitzing and blitzing and blitzing this season. Smith and Banks will constantly blitz from the outside, and Allert and Gary Plummer--the other inside starter--will sometimes be needed to cover the running backs.
Coach Al Saunders says he has no qualms about starting Allert, but Saunders also is the first to admit that the Chargers need bigger inside linebackers. Benson might be unsigned, but the Chargers already have made four trades during training camp and always could make another.
Smith thinks a trade isn't necessary.
"I think big is good, but you've got to be able to move, and Ty can," Smith said. "Oh man, we're gonna blitz a lot. I think we'll use the old 11-man blitz a couple times."