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Rookie WR Quentin Johnston feels prepared for bigger role in Chargers' offense

COSTA MESA, Calif. -- Quentin Johnston has played only 48 offensive snaps for the Chargers through his first three games in the NFL, but the rookie wide receiver is poised for a bigger role beginning on Sunday when Los Angeles hosts the Las Vegas Raiders.

"I'm just getting used to my new volume of play that I'm going to be in for," Johnston told in the locker room on Friday. "It's been fun. I'm looking forward to Sunday...

"I'm very excited. I try not to get too happy and just kind of stay focused. But I'm very excited for sure."

The 22-year-old's expected increase in playing time comes at the cost of losing Mike Williams to season-ending knee injury in Week 3. Although Johnston wishes his opportunity didn't present itself this way, he recognizes the situation offers him a chance to "live up to" the expectations that come with being a first-round pick.

Johnston became a highly-touted NFL prospect during his final year at TCU, generating 60 catches for 1,069 yards and six touchdowns to help get the Horned Frogs to the 2023 CFP National Championship Game. His breakout season resulted in the Chargers selecting him with the No. 21 overall pick in the 2023 NFL Draft.

"I think today he was better than he's been," Keenan Allen said of Johnston's practice on Wednesday in the locker room. "Just because once it comes down to it and it's do-or-die time then it's time that you got to go. When Mike was here it was like, I can make mistakes and do this and do that. But now it's not. There's a little bit urgency going on."

Johnston has only been targeted eight times so far this season, most of which coming in the form of short passing routes. The longest of his five receptions went for 11 yards but Johnston was able to gain first downs on two of those plays.

Johnston's role going forward won't necessarily be to outright replace Williams, which is something Allen said you "can't really" do. Over the course of his seven-year career, Williams has averaged an impressive 15.6 yards per reception in his role as a sure-handed deep threat.

At 6-foot-3, 208 pounds, Johnston has a similar physical presence as Williams and he's spent 75% of snaps this season lined up out wide, according to Next Gen Stats. But the Chargers have been rotating receivers with various alignments much more regularly in Kellen Moore's offensive system with Williams lined up 68% of the time out wide (31% in the slot), Allen spending 37% of his snaps out wide (52% in the slot) and Josh Palmer lining up out wide 68% of the time (27% in the slot).

In order to maintain the pace of the Chargers' efficient offense -- ranked second in the NFL at 416.7 yards per game -- they may ask Johnston to rotate more and line up inside.

"It's not all about Quentin," Chargers head coach Brandon Staley said on Friday. "It's going to be about our entire offense, our skill group of players, playing at a high level around Quentin, and Quentin just doing his part. He's plenty good enough and we're excited about him."

Johnston said he feels prepared for the bigger responsibility because of being behind guys like Williams and Allen, who have a combined 18 years of experience. Johnston is grateful to learn the nuances of the pro game from the 28-year-old he hopes to adequately replace.

"Just how to stay composed and game-time situations," Johnston said of what he's learned from Williams. "It kind of seems, I guess silly because I've been through college and all type stuff you don't really think it's that much of a difference but it really is, just everything that comes with it too. Not only stuff on the field, but off the field, how to stay out of the way, don't really get into too much. On the field as far as routes, he's one of the best attacking the ball and air. Really going back and forth with him on that and from watching him on the field and in meetings we go back and forth all the time. Just small stuff like that."

Johnston also feels an advantage learning from Palmer, a third-year WR who was relied upon heavily last season once both veteran WRs missed time due to injury. Palmer, too, is expected to see a bigger role with Williams out and he's poised to step up after proving at a year ago, but that won't change his weekly preparation.

"I prepare as if I'm the number one all the time, since I've been a rookie," Palmer said. "When I have to step into the roles it's not that I have to change anything that I'm doing or change the way that I'm working. Keenan is still there with me with me, side by side. It's not going to be like Atlanta where I was the only one or Arizona where I was kind of the only one out there without my guys. It's a team effort. With Mike down the whole team has to pick up the slack."

With quarterback Justin Herbert at the helm, it's also no wonder Palmer remains confident the rest of the way.

"We are unstoppable," he said. "I know anybody can step down and we can be unstoppable because that's how much faith we have in the other guys. Losing Mike, obviously it hurts a lot. You see the plays that he makes all the time but we have good coaches, a good team and we're going to be able to bounce back fine."

The Chargers host the Raiders in what is the team's first divisional matchup of the 2023 season on Sunday at SoFi Stadium.