Inside the Chargers' TCU brotherhood

IT WAS THE day before the Chargers' first regular-season practice, and Max Duggan didn't have a place to stay.

The rookie seventh-round pick's apartment wouldn't be ready for him to move in until the following day, so instead of booking a hotel, Duggan reached out to receiver Derius Davis, the Chargers' fourth-round pick. Duggan and Davis were TCU teammates who played in the national title game a few months earlier, and Duggan was hoping he could stay with his friend for the night.

Davis obliged, but there was another issue: He had no furniture. Davis had an air mattress, so Duggan bought his own, and the two friends and teammates since 2018 had a sleepover.

It was prescient of what the offseason would become for Duggan, Davis and receiver Quentin Johnston, the team's first-round pick. The trio spent three seasons together at TCU before being drafted by the Chargers in April, marking the first time a team drafted a quarterback and multiple skill position players from the same school in a single draft.

The first hurdle was for all three to make it onto the 53-man roster, which was far from a guarantee for Davis and Duggan, but Davis made the active roster, and Duggan is on the practice squad.

Ahead of the team's "Monday Night Football" matchup against the Dallas Cowboys (8:20 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN), Johnston and Davis have been thrust into more prominent roles on a team hampered by injuries but hoping to contend in the AFC.

The trio relies on each other to ensure they are ready.

"It don't usually work out like this, so it was really a blessing," Johnston told ESPN. "We came in not really knowing anybody, but we had each other. We already had a tight bond, we already had chemistry, so it's been big for us."

DUGGAN, JOHNSTON AND Davis led the school to its first National Championship game in their final season at TCU. The season began with muted expectations for the Horned Frogs, which had a new coaching staff and was returning from a five-win season.

Duggan evolved into one of the best players in college football, throwing for 3,698 passing yards and 41 total touchdowns. He won the Davey O'Brien Award, given to college football's best quarterback, and was a Heisman trophy finalist.

Johnston, a semifinalist for the Biletnikoff award -- given to college football's top receiver -- was Duggan's favorite target. Perhaps Johnston's best game came in TCU's college football semifinal victory over Michigan, when he caught six passes for 163 yards and a touchdown.

It was a game that stood out to TCU coach Sonny Dykes, who said in a recent interview that it reflected how Duggan and Johnston seemed to play their best in the most important moments. Dykes pointed to a play in the fourth quarter when Duggan had Michigan defenders rushing towards him, but he completed a pass to Johnston, who sprinted past the defense for a 76-yard touchdown.

Then there was Davis, who did much of his damage as a returner. When the offense was stalling, Davis was there to bail them out, Dykes said. From Davis' 82-yard punt return score against Texas Tech in the first quarter that led to a blowout win to a 60-yard return against Colorado in the second quarter to give TCU its first points, he consistently made impact plays.

"Those guys just had an ability to raise their level of play when they had to win," Dykes said. " In critical situations, they all had a great sense of timing, they just had confidence to say, 'OK, look, we need a play right now. I'm going to be the guy that makes it.' And that was huge for our football team."

But in the NFL, their status quickly changed. Duggan went from superstar to fighting for a roster spot. Johnston and Davis were buried behind an experienced receiver depth chart that includes Keenan Allen and Mike Williams, two of the league's best at the position, and Joshua Palmer, who had 72 catches last season.

They navigated their new roles together. Throughout training camp, their group chat lit up frequently. Most often, it was Johnston and Davis asking Duggan for a look ahead at the offensive script for the week (a list of plays and assignments that quarterbacks often get before the rest of the offense).

"First part of camp, we were texting like every night, like 'Hey, what we got on this, Max?' and he'll help us out," Johnston said. "Sometimes it'd be late. I'm like, 'Hey Max, I need that script before I go to sleep,' so it's just this little stuff like that. It makes me even more grateful having those guys here."

As training camp and the preseason began, Davis appeared to have the smoothest adjustment. He starred in the Chargers' first preseason game, scoring on an 81-yard punt return and catching two passes. Meanwhile, Johnston's play fluctuated, with two drops in the opening game, a concern evaluators had with him coming out of college, but he scored a touchdown. Duggan, meanwhile, played limited time, throwing for just 32 yards, and was sacked three times.

Through it all, they helped each other in the group chat and sometimes during games with talks on the sidelines. They sometimes drove together to hotels ahead of games, and Davis and Johnston, who live a few minutes from each other, often go to the Mexican restaurant Javier's in their neighborhood.

"It's been awesome," Duggan said. "I mean, we had a good relationship when we were all at school together. You have familiar faces, which I think makes it easier. So it's fun to be a part of this with those guys."

HE HASN'T BEEN active on a game day this year, but Duggan often serves as somewhat of a coach for Johnston, who comes to Duggan with questions. Duggan often comes to Johnston with suggestions in between plays. In the Week 4 game against the Las Vegas Raiders, for example, Johnston ran a crossing route but didn't execute it in the way he was hoping, so he talked to Duggan.

Johnston is under the most pressure of the group. He was the second receiver taken in the draft, but hasn't produced to the level of the other three first-round receivers taken around him, and other rookie receivers such as Los Angeles Rams' Puka Nacua, who was selected in the fifth round.

Johnston has acknowledged some of that pressure, and his college quarterback is often there to help.

"I didn't get a good look at the defense. I had my head down and was running, and he was just telling me how the safeties were switching and telling me how I should run the next one," Johnston said. "Or he'll sometimes come over to me like, 'This is what I see.' It's just all around helpful, and it still feels like we're in college sometimes when we're talking."

The Chargers' injury list runs long and is populated with some of their best players, including receiver Mike Williams.

That has created opportunities for Johnston and Davis. Against the Raiders, both played their most offensive snaps all season, with Johnston at 32 and Davis at 12. Davis had a rush of 51 yards on the opening drive, the second-longest by a non-running back in team history, and Johnston caught his longest reception of the season on an 18-yard catch in the second quarter.

"It's taken some time but I'm starting to get it," Johnston said of the NFL transition, noting that his time sitting behind the Chargers' more experienced receivers has aided his adjustment.

The trio doesn't have a name yet, though some have deemed the Chargers the Los Angeles Horned Frogs. The team has selected five players from TCU since 2000, the most of any team over that span, most notably running back LaDainian Tomlinson, who leads the franchise in rushing yards and touchdowns.

The closest they have to a moniker is a play the Chargers installed before during Week 4 called "TCU 12," where Johnston and Davis are on the field together. Either way, they say they don't have much interest in finding a nickname for their group, so their group chat will likely remain nameless.

For now, they are 20-something-year-olds still trying to navigate the NFL -- and apartment move-ins.

"We're always gonna lean on each other," Davis said. "You know, if it's ever getting too hard for us or something, we just come to each other and lean on each other. It just has made the transition way easier."