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Safety valve: Unsung Hart has emerged in Chargers' secondary

SAN DIEGO ---- Clinton Hart was frequently cited as a serious question mark before this season. Instead, he has proved to be quite the answer as the Chargers' starting strong safety.

There were suggestions that Hart wouldn't be a starter for long ---- not with a track record of six starts in three seasons with the Chargers and promising Eric Weddle being selected in the second round.

But Hart held off Weddle in training camp and has been a major contributor. He's second on the team with five interceptions and was a major reason why the Chargers led the NFL in interceptions (30) and takeaways (48).

"I put it along with all the other chips that I carry on my shoulder," Hart said of the slights he heard. "I put it up there with the rest of them. I still have stuff to prove to people ---- fans and people that don't believe I'll be able to get it done.

"We put together a good season, and from a personal standpoint, I put together a good season that I'm happy with. I did everything I could do to help this team get to where we are now."

The Chargers meet Tennessee on Sunday in an AFC wild-card playoff game at a time when Hart has been clicking on all cylinders.

Few outsiders envisioned Hart having a season in which he racked up a career-best 109 tackles to go with the career-high five interceptions. Secondary coach Bill Bradley uses the word "fantastic" to describe Hart's season.

"He does everything we've asked him to do," said Bradley, a former Pro Bowl safety. "All Clinton needed was an opportunity, and he's got his opportunity and he's taken advantage of it. He's going to be a premier safety in this league."

Another thing that has jumped out at the coaches is how Hart's level of play kept improving. That's a tribute to how Hart approaches the game all week, not just for three-plus hours on Sundays.

"The thing I like about him is he's gotten better with every game," coach Norv Turner said. "The one thing a guy like Clinton does is, because he works so hard at it and he prepares so well, he brings you consistency.

"Even without any of the interceptions, he's played at a high level. Now you start getting the interceptions, that's kind of like what a free safety should be ---- he's a ball (hawk) back there.

"He's gotten two or three balls that have been tipped and he's in the right place at the right time carrying out his assignments."

San Diego is definitely the right place at the right time for the 30-year-old Hart. A former college baseball player who never played college football, Hart first caught the attention of NFL teams by starring during two seasons of playing in arena football leagues.

He eventually was signed by Philadelphia and spent 2002 on the Eagles' practice squad. The following season, he started nine games after Pro Bowl safety Brian Dawkins was injured.

But the Eagles released Hart the following September, and the Chargers claimed him the following day.

"What happened is I became expendable," Hart said of his release. "Brian Dawkins got healthy, and they didn't want (Brian) Westbrook to be a returner. They needed someone who was a returner/safety, and J.R. Reed was a returner/safety in college, so they had two in one."

Looking back, Hart sees his release as the jump-start of his career. He intercepted five passes over the previous three seasons, including three last year. When the club released troubled Terrence Kiel, it opened the door for Hart's ascent.

General manager A.J. Smith said he never doubted that Hart would excel as the starting strong safety.

"I think he's an outstanding football player," Smith said. "He works hard at the game. He's a year-round worker, and it's very serious to him. He's had some experience along the way. We just felt he was talented."

Of course, plenty of others questioned whether Hart could play in the NFL. He says the critics have supplied plenty of fuel.

"It definitely helped motivate me to be who I am," Hart said. "This isn't the first time. I've gotten that throughout my whole life while trying to make it to where I'm at.

"Some people not believing, some people believing: 'He's a question mark. He didn't play college football. He's a baseball player.'

"I make one mistake in a game, and it gets broadcast as, 'Oh, he don't know what he's doing.' It gets tiring hearing that because I've seen Pro Bowl guys make the same mistake."