Austin Ekeler continues to show his value to Chargers

(News4usonline) – At this point in this season, the only thing the Los Angeles Chargers can play for is team pride and some positive momentum going into next year. Sitting in the basement of the NFL’s AFC West Division with a 5-8 record, the Chargers are no longer in position to be playing for a playoff spot.

That’s gone out of the window.

The highlights, thus far, have been few and far between. One of those bright lights has hit the back of running back Austin Ekeler all season. Without the versatility of their all-utility back, the Chargers might not have had the circumvented success they have been limited to in 2019.

A free agent in 2020, Ekeler showed off his multifaceted skills as a running back, rushing for 101 yards and catching four passes for 112 yards and a touchdown in the Chargers’ 45-10 road win against the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Bobby Wagner and Seattle Seahawks play the Los Angeles Chargers
© Mark Hammond/News4usonline – Seattle Seahawks middle linebacker Bobby Wagner (54) looks ready for action against Los Angeles Chargers running back Austin Ekeler (30). The Seahawks defeated the Chargers in preseason action, 23-15, at Dignity Health Sports Park on Saturday, Aug. 24, 2019.

“I had some good backs in college, I’m not going to lie,” Chargers tight end Hunter Henry said a day after the Chargers picked up their fifth win of the season. “[Colts RB] Jonathan Williams and [free agent running back] Alex Collins, but just a guy with what (Ek) can bring to the game, I have not been able to play with a guy like that. It’s awesome, it’s special. Especially in the run game and even when he catches the ball, afterward you kind of get excited to block. You get one block for that guy, it can go to the house each time. He’s super explosive.”

With the numbers he put up against Jacksonville, Ekeler became only the second Chargers player to hit the century mark in both receiving and rushing in one game.

It has been that kind of year for Ekeler. That 84-yard screen pass that Ekeler caught and ran into the endzone from quarterback Philip Rivers in the first quarter against Jacksonville proved as much. It also showed that the team’s play-calling has stepped up a notch or two since Shane Steichen was picked as offensive coordinator once Ken Whisenhunt was let go.

The Jaguars were in a full-blitz when Ekeler took Rivers’ pass out of the backfield and outran Jacksonville defenders to the endzone to complete the big play.

NFL Sunday Football
Los Angeles Chargers running back Austin Ekeler (30) going for the extra yard against the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday, Nov. 25, 2018. Photo by Steven Baffo/News4usonline

“That was preparation. We know in those situations that they like to bring pressure and [Offensive Coordinator] Shane [Steichen] dialed it up and it went 84 yards. I think Shane has been calling the games very well. I feel like when we don’t turn the ball over, we consistently move the ball up and down the field.”

The touchdown was Ekeler’s eighth pass-catching score of the season, now the single-season standard for an NFL undrafted running back.

Yes, you peeped this correctly.

Ekeler joined the Chargers in 2017 as an undrafted free agent from Western State University. In his third season with the team, Ekeler’s value as an all-around running back has increased greatly. With three games remaining on the Chargers’ schedule, Ekeler is closing in on the 1,000 yards pass-receiving mark.

Through the first 13 games this season, Ekeler has caught 73 passes for 830 yards. He has a total of 11 TDs so far. What’s the big deal about those stats? Ekeler. After getting his feet wet with limited reps during the first couple of seasons in the league, Ekeler, at 5-10 and a solid 200 pounds, has taken his game to the next level.

Los Angeles Chargers running back Austin Ekeler (30) takes a question from a student at Jefferson Elementary School in Inglewood, California. Ekeler and teammate took part in a ceremony at the school where the Chargers and Real California Milk presented a check of $10,000 to the Lennox School District on Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2017. Photo by Dennis J. Freeman/News4usonline

His 73 catches have already almost doubled the number of passes (39) he caught in 2018. The precursor for Ekeler’s most productive season as a pro was Melvin Gordon holding out for a bigger contract. In Gordon’s absence, Ekeler made the most of his opportunity as the team’s starting running back.

Ekeler has continued to flourish as a pass-catcher and runner even with Gordon now taking the bulk of the snaps. His rapid progression during his short time with the Chargers has impressed Henry.

“I remember seeing him his rookie year and no one really paid attention to him,” Henry said. “He was just like this little No. 3 in OTAs and training camp. We were like, ‘Who is this kid?’ He explodes in the last preseason game and we said, ‘Oh my gosh.’ All of the sudden — I think it was the Jacksonville game two years ago, he exploded and kind of came onto the scene. Just to see him each year — I told him last night how proud I was of him and just all that he’s been through. It’s really cool to see.”

With Gordon back, it has been difficult for opposing teams to load up on stopping either Gordon or Ekeler at the same time. Jacksonville found this out last Sunday. The Minnesota Vikings will be presented with the same opportunity when they play the Chargers at Dignity Health Sports Park.

The Chargers have not played a home game since they defeated the Green Bay Packers on Nov. 3. Since that time, the Chargers went 1-3 on the road. Some home cooking just might be what the team needs in the next couple of weeks. After playing the Vikings, the Chargers end their run at Health Dignity Sports Park on Dec. 22 when they take on the Oakland Raiders.

The Chargers will begin playing their home games at SoFi Stadium (Los Angeles Stadium & Entertainment District at Hollywood Park) in Inglewood next season.

“We’re excited to go out there and have another opportunity this week against another good football team that’s coming out here,” Henry said. “We get to play a home game, for once. I feel like we haven’t been home in a while. I know that we’ll all be excited about that. We’re playing a really good Vikings team. We’ll be fired up and ready to go.”

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