COSTA MESA, Calif. — Austin Ekeler has been vocal about getting more consistency behind him since ascending into the primary back role.
The Chargers have drafted three running backs since Melvin Gordon departed in free agency of 2020. They took Joshua Kelley in ’20, Larry Rountree in ’21, and Isaiah Spiller in ’22.
Kelley’s first two seasons were a rollercoaster, but last season, he showed more consistency in the first five weeks before spraining his MCL on Monday Night Football against Denver.
“I feel like my first two years, it was a lot of stuff where I was in my head,” Kelley said. “For me, I have the ability, I have the game… Last year, I showed what I can do when I have the opportunity. Going into this year, I’m feeling really good mentally.”
Rountree was waived last week after preseason game one against the Rams. It was evident that he wasn’t going to make the roster. Also, Elijah Dotson provided a spark with his touchdown runs, so he was out.
“Dotson has popped in there and had some opportunities, as well,” offensive coordinator Kellen Moore said. “We’re just continuing to give those guys as much opportunity and exposure as we can and, certainly, find those different roles.”
Spiller was a big name coming out of Texas A&M and seen as an every down back. The Chargers’ signing of Sony Michel last year took away his opportunity to show anything, he got hurt, and it took him a while to get comfortable.
“It was hard, I had a lot of adversity,” Spiller admitted. “I got hurt. I had never been hurt before… It was different, I had to adjust, and I think that took time. It really served me well.”
This training camp and two preseason games, Spiller has shown that he may be ready for a more prominent role. He has accumulated ten carries for 54 yards, with a 71-yard touchdown called back for holding against the Rams.
“Getting comfortable playing out there more, especially before the season,” Spiller explained. “Focusing on that, the details, what I need to look at on the run and in pass protections and knowing my routes. Being attentive to details this year has been really important, and I think the preseason games have helped me.”
So how does Moore see the running back competition right now?
“I think that Austin is going to, obviously, carry a lot of it, but at different parts, we will want to utilize those guys just to alleviate Austin for some of the workload,” Moore said. “We’ll just see how it all plays out.”
Despite the criticism from former head coach Mike McCarthy, Moore has a history of helping running backs reach their potential. Cowboys running back Tony Pollard is now the featured back, getting paid about $10 million.
Moore now must do that with Ekeler, Kelley, and Spiller. Find a way to use each of them at their strength but not overwork Ekeler the way he has been the last two seasons.
“I really like how downhill it is, man,” Kelley said about the running scheme. “I think that really fits my style. One cut, just get downhill. A lot of our outside zone perimeter runs are just one cut. Just be decisive. That’s kind of my strength as a runner.”
The Chargers offense features a lot of firepower led by quarterback Justin Herbert, but as head coach Brandon Staley and others have said numerous times, the running game will be critical in 2023.
“We know our quarterback, our receivers, tight ends, those guys can make plays, but I feel like we have to be more balanced and run the ball,” Kelley said. “That’s on us to just get this thing going.”
Balance applies not only to the force but also to the Chargers offensive look this season. They must run the ball consistently and not rely solely on their quarterback.
The offensive line is back to full strength with the return of left tackle Rashawn Slater and the re-signing of right tackle Trey Pipkins. There have been some moving pieces, but this might be the best offensive line since the Nick Hardwick and Philip Rivers days.
“Man, those guys, they could be really a big unit,” Kelley said. “They could be one of the best in the league. I like running behind them.”
Moore’s 2022 Cowboys running averaged 4.3 yards per rush compared to the Chargers’ 3.8 while running for about 1,000 yards more.
During camp, there has been a big emphasis on giving Ekeler a little less load to carry, with Kelley, Spiller, and even Dotson taking the bulk of the carries.
“We’re coming in with a different mentality that we’re going to run the ball this year,” Spiller said. “We’re trying to be at the top of the league this year. We took that as a room and try to apply it to the field.”
Consistency and balance will be two key words heard throughout the season regarding running the football. Ekeler has scored 38 touchdowns in the last two seasons, which is great, but they need to be able to move the chains.
That is how some games are lost, like the playoff game against the Jaguars. The Chargers need to be able to count on the running back room to help bring balance to the offense, help score points, and put games away.
“Honestly, I feel like this room, in a way, we’re really under looked in there,” Kelley said. “I feel like we have some guys. This year, we have to show it, though. We can talk about it, but we have to show it.”
Nuts N’ Bolts
•Safety Alohi Gilman, safety Mark Webb, linebacker Nick Niemann, and linebacker Amen Ogbongbemiga returned to practice.
•Center Corey Linsley, tight end Donald Parham, and linebacker Blake Lynch missed practice.