When it comes to the running back position for the Los Angeles Chargers, there is LaDainian Tomlinson and everybody else. Tomlinson played nine of his 11 seasons in the NFL with the Chargers and is now a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
After Tomlinson, the running back cupboard for the Chargers has been hit-and-miss over the years with no other team rusher reaching the 5,000 yards plateau.
Tomlinson gained the bulk of his 13,684 career yards as a member of the Chargers from 2001 until 2009. Fair or unfair, Tomlinson is the standard to which all other running backs are and will be judged, should they play for the Chargers. That bar has been set pretty high by Tomlinson.
Neither Melvin Gordon III (4,240 yards) nor Ryan Mathews (4,061 yards with Chargers; 5, 261 yards overall) could cut the mustard in reaching those standards. Maybe either returner Austin Ekeler or rookie Johsua Kelley will be the ones to climb that same ladder as Tomlinson. The Chargers just signed Ekeler to a contract extension before going out and drafting Kelley in the fourth round of the 2020 NFL Draft.
“Our running back room only has two guys in it right now,” Chargers general manager Tom Telesco said. “ Josh has a different style than the two backs we have. He’s a player that we liked a lot, both at UCLA and at the Senior Bowl. I think he has a really nice vision to see things patiently. When he puts his foot in the ground, he can really explode through the hole. He had a nice career at UCLA.”
“He has a really nice story and background as far as where he came from to where he is now. Like [QB] Justin Herbert did, Josh Kelley really stood out at the Senior Bowl,” Telesco continued. “You watch them in the fall, then you see them in an all-star game against the best seniors in the country. It was nice to see him really step up, too. That’s part of our evaluation process. He’s a very well-rounded running back and we’re looking forward to seeing him get in the mix.”
With Gordon leaving the team via free agency, the Chargers needed to fill that void. After going for a potential franchise quarterback in Oregon’s Justin Herbert (No. 6 overall, first round) and shoring up the defense with Oklahoma linebacker Kenneth Murray (No. 23 overall, first round), Kelley was there for the Chargers’ taking at the No. 112 slot.
“You know what, I was hoping that he would be there in the fourth round after the first day ended because we didn’t have a third-round pick,” Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn said. “This is a young man, after losing [Broncos RB] Melvin Gordon [III] — and Melvin Gordon is one heck of a back. Not to say Joshua Kelley can be Melvin Gordon, but he’s a downhill, physical runner that I liked watching the tape. He was kind of a late bloomer. He started out, I believe, at UC Davis and kind of grew into the body that he has now, transferred over to UCLA. All he has done every single year is get better and better. We’re hoping to keep that trend.”
In two seasons with UCLA, Kelley rushed for 2,303 yards. He became the eighth running back in the school history to rush for more than 1,000 yards in back-to-back seasons. During the two first years of his collegiate career, Kelley played football at UC Davis before the Inglewood native transferred over to UCLA.
“He’s battle-tough,” Lynn said. “He’s been through some things in life and come out on the other side. He’s another one of those young men that has been through something, is high-character and (has) great intangibles. At the same time, he’s a good football player. That’s what I was focused on.”
As a runner, Kelley didn’t flourish until his first season at UCLA. His two-year stint at UC Davis produced pedestrian numbers (607 yards on 87 carries his sophomore season). After sitting out a year once he transferred, Kelley erupted for 1,243 yards and produced six 100-yard rushing games for the Bruins, averaging 5.1 yards every carry.
What a difference two schools can make. Davis went from playing in the Big Sky Conference to rushing the football for a Pac-12 school. While he struggled at UC Davis, his profile as a running back took off once he went to Westwood.
“I was a two-star [recruit] coming out of high school. I didn’t get a lot of national spotlight attention or anything, but I remember UC Davis,” Kelley. “They came to me and offered me a full ride. They were my only one, so I was like, ‘I’m going to go here.’ Being there was great. They had great coaches and great players, too, but for me, I feel like I’ve always had this competitive drive. I felt like I could always compete and play in a Power Five conference. It’s always been a hunger of mine. I really made that decision to better myself after my sophomore year and transfer to UCLA.”
Kelley said playing for Bruins got him ready to play in the NFL.
“Man, UCLA was a great place,” Kelley said. “Great coaches — [Running Backs Coach] DeShaun Foster, [Head Coach] Chip Kelly, Jim Mora. There’s a lot of great players and great coaches that I’ve come in contact with. I think Coach Kelly’s system definitely prepared me for the league. He coached in Philly, he coached in San Francisco. He definitely brought his philosophies to UCLA — a lot of the same pro-style running schemes. I have a lot of experience running it and I think that it’s something I do really well.”
Besides being drafted by the Chargers, Kelley is also enjoying a caveat of staying home in Southern California.
“Yeah, man, I couldn’t believe it. That was awesome,” Kelley said. “That was cool, man. I’m excited, obviously excited. I just can’t wait to make them feel like they made the right choice. I have to get to work.”