Hardwick anchors O-line carousel

SAN DIEGO -- Due to a neck stinger suffered against Denver, San Diego Chargers center Nick Hardwick has been relegated to mirroring the first-unit offensive line during individual drills in practice this week.

“You still have to put the preparation in,” Hardwick said. “You have to go out and actually go through the mental gymnastics of taking every rep, and saying to yourself, ‘Okay, got that. That’s what that is.’ And then trying to simulate in your body how the block is going to feel. Not just standing out there and having a good time, but taking the reps with the guys.”

Hardwick is one of five San Diego players who did not participate in practice on Thursday, along with safety Jahleel Addae (ankle), left tackle King Dunlap (neck), Le’ron McClain (ankle) and receiver Eddie Royal (toe).

The 10-year veteran is the only offensive lineman who’s started every game for the Chargers this season, and hopes to be healthy enough to continue that streak on Sunday against the Miami Dolphins.

Hardwick has played in 128 career games, and 59 straight. His consecutive starts streak is second on the team behind Philip Rivers (121).

But Hardwick said he’s not concerned about the consecutive games streak. He just wants to be there for his team each week.

“You want to be durable and dependable as a football player,” Hardwick said. “That lets you keep your job.”

The Chargers have had five different starting offensive line combinations through nine games, including five players see time at left tackle.

But through all of that shuffling, the offensive line has still performed at a high level. Rivers has been sacked just 16 times, tied for fourth-best in the NFL. Rivers also has been hit a league-low 27 times.

“That’s our job, right?” Hardwick said. “To come out, execute and put a good performance on the field, protect Philip and be able to run the football. So no matter who’s out there, you have to be able to get that done.”

The improved play for San Diego up front is one of the reasons Rivers has had a bounce-back season in 2013. And Hardwick has led the offensive line with his solid, consistent play.

“He’s definitely an asset,” fellow offensive lineman Jeromey Clary said. “Him and Phil as a combination I would imagine has got to be one of the top in the league. They’re both really smart. They both study a lot of film. They both understand our scheme inside and out.”

Chargers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt said having a veteran center like Hardwick on the field makes his job easier.

“Not only is a he a good football player, but he brings a tremendous amount of leadership to that group,” Whisenhunt said. “And I think at that position, it’s probably one of the most important positions on the team with communicating. The information comes from him and goes out as far as our protections and what we’re doing and who we’re identifying, and a lot of that is important as far as getting everybody on the same page. So he’s done a great job with that.”

Johnson back: Outside linebacker Jarret Johnson returned to practice on Thursday after missing last week’s game against Denver with a lingering hamstring injury.

Along with Johnson, defensive end Lawrence Guy (toe) and running back Ryan Mathews (hamstring) were limited participants.

Offensive lineman Mike Remmers (ankle), guard Chad Rinehart (toe) and linebacker Manti Te'o were full participants.