During each Friday practice, the Chiefs offensive linemen run circular pass patterns and try to catch tosses from line coaches Andy Heck and Eugene Chung.
It’s a fun exercise, designed to lighten the mood at the end of a tough work week and give the 300-pound behemoths a chance for a little practice-field glory.
But the pass-catching sessions are no joking matter to second-year tackle Donald Stephenson.
When the Chiefs deploy an extra blocker in goal-line and short-yardage situations, Stephenson is usually lined up as a third tight end and is an eligible receiver.
And he’s itching to catch a pass, especially in the end zone.
“Of course, of course I am,” Stephenson said grinning. “There are a few plays out there set up that way, but I’m usually the last guy that gets looked at. But if I’m lucky enough to get one of those, I’m going to take advantage of it. I’m going to catch the ball.”
Stephenson could have more on his plate on Sunday afternoon against San Diego than filling in as an extra tight end. Right tackle and first-round draft pick Eric Fisher has been out this week because of a shoulder injury, meaning Stephenson is likely to make his second start of the season.
Stephenson, who started in the Chiefs’ 24-7 win over Oakland on Oct. 13 when Fisher was out because of a concussion, was thrust into the lineup in the second half of last Sunday night’s game at Denver.
In fact, fellow backup Geoff Schwartz also replaced injured guard Jon Asamoah in the second half at Denver, giving the Chiefs a rebuilt offensive line, but Asamoah appears to be recovering from his calf and shoulder injuries faster than Fisher.
Chiefs offensive coordinator Doug Pederson is confident there won’t be a dropoff at either position if Stephenson or Schwartz has to play in a pinch on Sunday.
“As you look at the fourth quarter (at Denver),” Pederson said, “Donald Stephenson goes in and you really don’t lose a beat at tackle. We can move some guys around Geoff Schwartz is there … we’ve got some veteran guys who can step in and feel very comfortable in what they can do.”
A third-round draft pick from Oklahoma in 2012 and product of Blue Springs High School, Stephenson started seven games as a rookie last season, mostly when left tackle Branden Albert was out.
Stephenson has had to learn how to stay patient and stay ready at the same time.
“You want to play, especially in a season like this … a lot of guys are having fun out there,” Stephenson said. “We’re 9-1, and any opportunity I get to get out there and play, I’ll take advantage of it.
“I knew that was going to be my job. If anybody goes down, I’m in. I prepare like that every week. There’s no surprise this week. I was prepared for it and I’m ready to do it.”
Stephenson has taken some of his cues from Schwartz, a five-year veteran who has been a versatile backup at Carolina and at Minnesota.
“Me and Geoff prepare like we’re starting,” Stephenson said. “When we go in, there’s no surprise about what we need to do. We communicate … you make it easy on yourself in practice, so on those Sundays when you’re thrown out there, it pays off.”
Any opportunity to showcase his skills is important. Fisher’s natural position is left tackle, and with Albert expected to be a free agent after his contract expires at the end of the season, this could be an opportunity for Stephenson to stake a claim on right tackle for the future.
“I can’t worry about that,” Stephenson said. “I’ll get myself in trouble going out there worrying about next year. Every opportunity out there, I’m going to try and take advantage. Right now, I’m just trying to get the Chiefs a win on Sunday.”
And that could include catching a pass as well as blocking for quarterback Alex Smith.
The Chiefs have a tradition of throwing tackle eligible passes. Tackle Joe Valerio made an art form out of it in the mid-1990s; linebacker Mike Vrabel caught two touchdown passes in 2009-10; and even defensive end Jared Allen snared two touchdowns in 2007 while serving as an extra blocker.
“He’s an athletic guy and can move,” Pederson said. “On a couple goal-line plays, he has an opportunity to make a play, and we’ll see what happens.”
One of those opportunities came against Houston when Stephenson slipped into the end zone but quarterback Alex Smith threw an incomplete pass to the back of the end zone intended for tight end Sean McGrath.
“I was open…” Stephenson said in the spirit of receivers everywhere.