Can Chargers' Austin Ekeler be next breakout running back?

Yahoo Sports

COSTA MESA, Calif. — The running back shooting up fantasy football draft boards has never taken a workout supplement and played Division II college football.

His name is Austin Ekeler, and as the Melvin Gordon holdout continues (it has escalated to a reported trade request), the former undrafted running back could be the Los Angeles Chargers’ starter come Week 1.

Ekeler says he doesn’t like supplements because he doesn’t trust them. He doesn’t use a personal trainer because he knows what he does — a combination of training methods — works.

Last fall, Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn deemed Ekeler the strongest pound-for-pound player on the team. This training camp he cleared the pile in a goal-line drill, jumping over five stacked agility bags. He performed the drill as well as anyone Lynn has ever seen, which includes a list of LaDainian Tomlinson and Fred Taylor.

After going undrafted in 2017, Ekeler totaled 539 all-purpose yards as a rookie and 958 the season after including three starts in Gordon’s absence. Pro Football Focus graded Ekeler sixth best in the league after the 2018 season. Entering his third season, the Gordon news changed the scope of Ekeler’s potential contributions. Ekeler is now the most experienced running back on the roster, splitting reps with second-year running back Justin Jackson.

Ekeler has never been more than a contributor in the Chargers’ offense having not rushed or caught for 100 yards in a game during his two seasons. The same could be said for Jackson who gained 341 all-purpose yards on 65 touches during his rookie season. Ekeler noted last week that Jackson has a “razzle-dazzle” effect in his game, referring to the unpredictability of his runs.

As the Chargers prepare for their first preseason game, it appears the two young backs will be featured for awhile. Gordon and the Chargers negotiations are separated by $2 million to $3 million per year, according to Yahoo Sports’ Charles Robinson. Both Lynn and offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt say that it’ll likely be a running back by committee scheme in Los Angeles.

“Hopefully we get [Gordon] back soon,” Lynn said this week. “These other guys are taking advantage of these reps. They’re here right now, helping our football team get better. I’m excited for them.”

With no end in sight with the Melvin Gordon holdout, Austin Ekeler (pictured) is the next man up for the Chargers' running game. (Getty Images)
With no end in sight with the Melvin Gordon holdout, Austin Ekeler (pictured) is the next man up for the Chargers' running game. (Getty Images)

Working out six or seven days a week is part of what brought Ekeler from Western Colorado to the brink of stardom. It started nailing in fence posts for his stepdad during the summers and transitioned into a small workout group during his sophomore year of high school.

He learned weight training from Dean Grable, his high school offensive coordinator, who fostered a positive group energy for Ekeler and his friends. He was the kind of coach who’d say: “If you can beat me in bench, you can have my gold chain,” Ekeler remembered.

“As a running back it comes down to your body, specifically because nothing’s black and white as a running back,” Ekeler said earlier this month. “It could be the same play but it might be ran 10 different ways because there are 10 different scenarios. So I mean as [I am] preparing coming in it’s: ‘OK can I make the cuts? Am I strong? Am I fast?’”

The years training with friends and Grable made Ekeler a “weights guy” and he learned he had naturally strong legs. He loves squats, lunges and jumps, the sort of athletic movements that translated into 1,049 yards as a freshman at Western Colorado. The last time Ekeler served as an every down back was his third and final season in school. He finished third in Division II with 1,637 yards and averaged 203.9 all purpose yards.

Ekeler has brought similar explosion with the Chargers. His first career touchdown was a 35-yard scamper through the middle of the defense. Last season against San Francisco, he lined up as the most outside receiver and burned his defender on a stop-and-go route down the sideline for a touchdown. Against Oakland, he bailed Philip Rivers out of a potential sack and brought a swing pass 44-yards for a score.

“That gives us some versatility with those guys where we can put them in different spots, keep everybody fresh,” Whisenhunt said in reference to Ekeler lining up outside.

It’s unclear if the Chargers will need someone to play in Gordon’s place come Week 1. But if they do and Ekeler’s number is called, he’ll certainly have trained for it.

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