Chargers' Philip Rivers, Hunter Henry build chemistry in Florida

Philip Rivers and Hunter Henry, pictured in the middle, pose for a photo after a throwing session on vacation in Santa Rosa Beach, Florida, that included other friends and family. Courtesy of Hunter Henry

COSTA MESA, Calif. -- Besides the freshly cut grass, Hunter Henry said not much had changed in the two years that have passed since he last ran routes at Helen McCall Park in Santa Rosa Beach, Florida.

Looking to build more of a rapport with his veteran quarterback, the Los Angeles Chargers tight end took a few days away from vacation to set up an impromptu workout session with quarterback Philip Rivers this summer.

Vacationing with family on Florida's Emerald Coast, Henry reached out Rivers, staying nearby, to see if he wanted to work out.

What followed was a two-hour workout session in the 100-degree Florida heat and humidity at the youth football field. It helped build chemistry between two key players in the Chargers' high-powered offense.

"Any time you get to run routes and spend time with your quarterback, it's awesome," Henry said.

The two Chargers actually got together on the same field two years ago, according to Henry, while Rivers and wife Tiffany built their summer home in Santa Rosa Beach for the couple and their nine kids to visit with family from nearby Alabama during the offseason.

"That was fun to kind of spontaneously hook up with him and throw a little bit," Rivers said. "I don't throw much during that break, but when you've got your tight end that is that close, you make exceptions and throw a little bit. It was good to get out and get a little work in."

Henry, who grew up taking annual summer vacations to the Gulf Coast, and his family stayed about 30 minutes outside the beach town of Destin, Florida.

Tagging along with Henry were younger brothers Hayden and Hudson. Both have followed in older brother Hunter and dad Mark Henry's footsteps and are currently playing football at the University of Arkansas. Hayden is a junior linebacker for the Razorbacks, while Hudson, a tight end like Hunter, is starting his freshman season.

"We just ran routes, did some movement stuff, things like that," Henry said about the workouts. "It's huge [getting to work with Rivers during the offseason]. He's one of the most important guys that I have to build a relationship with. To have that relationship is awesome, especially after missing last year. Spending any time with him is huge for me.

"I love it down there," added Henry. "It's a really special place that I've grown up going to."

Henry's looking to develop the same type of chemistry with Rivers that the 37-year-old signal caller had with his former security blanket in future Hall of Famer Antonio Gates, who likely will not be back with the Chargers this season.

Gates served as an outlet for Rivers over the middle of the field in critical moments. The two combined for an NFL-record 89 touchdowns during their 15 years playing together. Gates' 116 career touchdown receptions is the most by a tight end in NFL history.

Entering his fourth season, Henry missed all of the 2018 regular season due to a right ACL knee injury he suffered during offseason work in May of last year. During the 2016 and 2017 seasons that preceded the injury, though, he caught a combined 81 passes for 1,057 yards and 12 touchdowns. He's rehabbed diligently and managed to return to the field eight months after the injury, playing 14 snaps in the Chargers' AFC divisional playoffs loss to the New England Patriots last season.

Henry says he's explosive again. He got rid of the brace the second day of training camp, a sign of how good he feels about where his right knee is now.

"Every day I come out here, it builds confidence in my head," Henry said. "Not that I'm not confident, but I just think it helps me continue to feel great."

Henry said staying healthy is his No. 1 goal this season; Henry has missed 20 games due to injury his first three seasons and has yet to play a full 16 games.

Chargers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt is pleased to have Henry back in the fold.

"He looks really good," Whisenhunt said. "It's great to have Hunter back. He's explosive and fast, obviously. He does a lot of things for us, whether it's lining up outside or it's inside as a blocker -- even some of the stuff in the backfield.

"He's one of those unique guys that's a good combination of size and speed. He has great hands and a good feel in the run game."

One of the ways Whisenhunt will use Henry is by employing more two tight end sets. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, the Chargers have used two tight end sets on 27% of their offensive plays over the past three seasons, the seventh-highest rate in the NFL. On those plays, the Chargers have scored 34 touchdowns, the third-most in the NFL behind the Eagles (41) and the Chiefs (39).

"When you get a guy like Hunter, it adds another guy so that we don't necessarily always have to have multiple receivers out there," Whisenhunt said. "Sometimes we can go with a two tight end, two receiver set. Sometimes, we can even go three tight ends.

"Back in 2017, when we had Hunter late in the season, we had some three-tight-end sets that were really effective for us as run/pass combinations, and those are the kind of things that you can do when you have guys like that."