Chargers on shaky ground with only Austin Ekeler to count on

The Chargers’ first two attempts to draft a running back to take some of the pressure off Austin Ekeler didn’t go so well.

Larry Rountree III, drafted in the sixth round from Missouri in 2021 in hopes he would be a strong short-yardage back, was inactive in mid-October. He had 36 carries for 87 yards, all through November 21, and one reception for minus a yard. He finished the season mostly in service with the special teams.

Joshua Kelley, drafted in the 2020 fourth-round draft by UCLA, underwhelmed in his sophomore season with 33 carries for 102 yards and five catches for 38 yards. He played 10 games and has a two-season average of 3.17 yards per carry.

A third touch of running back to complement the 5-foot-10 Ekeler this season would logically force the Chargers into a trade — just as the Rams did last August when they acquired Sony Michel, who regularly led them. Rushing yards of the season — or check out other teams’ late roster cuts to add a veteran backup.

Meanwhile, the Chargers are hoping someone will show up at training camp to win the No. 2 running back job, a competition that will rise as they begin regular training in pads and face tacklers and players in special team roles can be rated.

“We’re going to give them every opportunity to prove themselves,” said coach Brandon Staley of the No. 2 running back candidates. “That’s what this training camp for this position is going to be about.”

The newest contender is Texas A&M’s Isaiah Spiller, fourth-round draft pick of 2022, who appealed to the Chargers in part because he showed versatility as a junior, rushing for 1,011 yards in 179 carries and making 25 catches for 189 yards.

Spiller took advice and inspiration from Ekeler, who made the roster as an undrafted free agent from Western Colorado University in 2017 and worked his way up from special teams to supporting Melvin Gordon and then to an important and prominent spot.

“Seeing him grow is crazy and an amazing story,” Spiller said after a practice in Costa Mesa last week. “So, it’s just learning from him, his mindset, the way he thinks, the way he carries himself. I’m sure I just pick up stuff like that.

“I just come in every day and prove my worth to the team that I’m an asset and the team needs me. I take it every day, study, listen to what Austin has to say, act out the plays. I still have to show it all. It’s a process. I just enjoy the process.”

Ekeler had career-best totals last season with 206 rushing attempts, 911 yards and 12 rushing touchdowns. He also had 70 receptions for 647 yards and eight touchdowns, a career high. He played 16 games, which was encouraging after being limited to 10 games in 2020 due to hamstring and knee problems.

Staley said he sees no change in Ekeler’s role, even if someone shows up to take a few touches away. “Hopefully we can do more with him,” Staley said.

Chargers running back Isaiah Spiller (28) participates in practice.

The Chargers have drafted running backs three years in a row, picking Isaiah Spiller (28) this year in hopes of finding a solid No. 2.

(Alex Gallardo/Associated Press)

However, offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi is aware of the punches Ekeler routinely absorbs and the potential repercussions if he is lost to injury.

“I’m not expecting any kind of usage slump from it. But like any running back, unless you’re 250 pounds, sometimes there’s a pitch count for those guys,” Lombardi said.

“He’s not someone you want to lose mid-season because you overworked him. Just being smart about how many times he gets hit in each game is something you need to keep an eye on. And so we rely on the other guys to fill the gap when he’s not there.”

That’s asking a lot.

Ekeler, 27, said the running backs have been competitive and he welcomes being pushed by them, but his versatility gives him a huge advantage.

“My job is to create as much value as possible, not just in the running back but in the slot and across the field,” he said. “I think that’s where I have a lot of value in my game. You can put me pretty much anywhere and I have some value on the runs deep down field, speed, whether you want me to run down center or you want to pass the ball, throw me, have me as bait want that goes in one direction for some kind of screen. I will be efficient wherever you put me.”

Wherever they deploy him, it’s important that he avoids major injury – and that he has a backup that can make a significant contribution.

“When we have a guy who’s shown that he’s an excellent runner, can really hit rocks and is really good at it, maybe stronger than me, it’s like we can still see him, but myself still on the field at the same time,” Ekeler said, recalling that he and Gordon split in 2019.

“As for my load, yes, maybe it could be changed a bit, but I don’t think it’s going to go down. I think it will look just a little bit different, if at all.”

The more the running back looks like a strong 2-1 hit, the better the Chargers’ chances of qualifying for the playoffs.

https://www.latimes.com/sports/chargers/story/2022-07-30/column-chargers-shaky-ground-running-backs-austin-ekeler Chargers on shaky ground with only Austin Ekeler to count on

Emma Bowman

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