ALAMEDA, Calif. (AP) — Even as he tries to adjust to his role as the Oakland Raiders interim coach, Tony Sparano hasn't strayed far from his duties working with the team's offensive line.
It's a good thing, too.
With veteran lineman Khalif Barnes sitting out Sunday's home game against San Diego with a quad strain, 2013 second-round pick Menelik Watson will make his fifth career start.
"He's told us he's going to need us to step it up and be more responsible," Watson said Friday. "With the vets we have, it's not a problem. We do understand that he has a bigger role, but any chance we can get his views on how to things, it's good. We're all excited about the new change and what he's doing and the direction he's taking us."
It's not the ideal situation Sparano was hoping for with his team coming off the bye. Quarterback Derek Carr is nursing knee and foot injuries and will be facing a San Diego defense that is third overall and first in fewest points allowed.
Because the Chargers occasionally use Dwight Freeney on the left side of the defense, it's almost certain that Watson will face the seven-time Pro Bowl linebacker at some point.
"They're probably looking over preseason tapes and stuff like that, to get a feel for me," Watson said. "Well, I'm doing the same thing on him. It'll be exciting to get out there and compete against a guy like that."
The 42nd overall pick in 2013, Watson made one nominal start as an extra offensive lineman earlier this season but has spent most of his time on special teams.
The 6-foot-5-inch native of England, who played one year in junior college and another season at Florida State, was originally drafted to be the Raiders' left tackle. He started three games as a rookie then was moved to the right side this past offseason.
Watson held onto the starting job through nearly the entire preseason before rookie Gabe Jackson beat out Barnes for the left guard spot. Barnes was shifted back to right tackle, pushing Watson back down the depth chart.
That meant Watson had to get his work on the scout team while going against Oakland defensive ends Justin Tuck and LaMarr Woodley, along with first-round pick linebacker Khalil Mack.
In Freeney, Watson faces a player who was once among the top pass rushers in the NFL. The 34-year-old is coming off an injury-shortened 2013 season and is showing signs of his former self, although Freeney has been limited in practice this week with a sore knee.
Even slowed, Freeney will provide a stern test for Watson.
"Obviously, this is an important step for Menelik right now," Sparano said. "He played a lot of snaps last week and did some good things and some things that need to be corrected. But it's out there, it's on tape, our opponent sees it and he knows he's gotta fix it."
"Based on what happened last year, you really have to treat him like a rookie in your approach to things. You're starting all over again with him and he's really done a good job that way and I think he's getting better and better each week. He'll have his hands full this week, it's a big challenge."
Notes: CB Keith McGill (groin) did not practice and is out. CB Tarrell Brown (thumb) is probable. LB Sio Moore (ankle), FB Marcel Reece (quad) and WR Vincent Brown (hamstring) were limited and are all questionable.
Copyright 2014 The Associated Press.