A couple of youngbloods for the Los Angeles Chargers made quite a splash in their rookie debut with the ballclub as the team opened its season against the Cincinnati Bengals. The good deal is that the Chargers got the “W” with a 16-13 road victory. The better part of the win is that the Chargers got major contributions from three rookies in all three phases of the game: offense, defense and special teams.
Let’s start with the offensive side of the ball. Joshua Kelley, who starred for the UCLA Bruins, wasn’t the best running back on the football field on Sunday, but he sure turned some heads. While Austin Ekeler lead the Chargers in rushing the football with 84 yards on 19 carries, Kelley, who was picked in the fourth round by the Chargers in the 2020 NFL Draft, had his moments where he shined.
With a 12 carry, 60-yard day, including a 5-yard touchdown run that would eventually tie the game after the Chargers had fallen into a 13-6 deficit, Kelley didn’t waste time in making inroads with the team that selected him. His touchdown in the fourth quarter was the first by a Chargers rookie since Hall of Famer running back LaDainian Tomlinson did it back in 2001.
“I thought the young man overall played outstanding yesterday (Sunday),” Chargers coach Anthony Lynn said during a conference call with reporters on Monday. “It would have been hard to win that game without him in my opinion.”
With that said, Kelley would likely get a lot more touches with Justin Jackson sidelined because of a quad injury, Lynn said.
“Absolutely,” said Lynn.
There were a couple of things that Kelley impressed upon his head coach in his official NFL debut.
“His instincts, his power,” Lynn said. “This young man-he can find a soft spot in the defense. And he can create, you know. That was one heck of a run down there in the red zone when he made the guy miss in the backfield and he made the safety miss three yards past the line of scrimmage. To make two people miss in the National Football League within five yards that’s pretty hard to do. And he has the power to run you over.”
Kelley’s short scoring run which was critical for the Chargers to get back in the game was set up by fellow rookie Joe Reed. Reed, listed on the Chargers depth chart as a backup wide receiver, has a multi-faceted game that will be beneficial for Los Angeles. Reed can play a little of running back along with his pass-catching duties. He can also make a difference in the game as a player on special teams as the Bengals found out.
It was Reed’s 45-yard kickoff return late in the third quarter that kickstarted the Chargers offense to scores its only touchdown of the day with Kelley plunging into the endzone from five yards out. Lynn liked the fact that Reed has the explosiveness to change a game. But the fifth-round draft pick out of Virginia also had some moments against the Bengals that Lynn wasn’t too crazy about.
“I don’t like the fact that he ran out of bounds on his own and he created a penalty on special teams, but the one kick return that he had, you know, that’s what Joe can do,” Lynn said. “We needed that field position and he put the offense in great shape to put points on the board. But he’s a threat back there as a teamer. We want to get home more involved as he grow in this offense doing some special things. We love Joe as an athlete. But right now, his primary role is going to be three-course special teams guy and backup receiver. And the guy can play some running back as well. Love his versatility.”
Before the game, Reed admitted to having a case of the jitters. But once the game got into the flow, Reed said playing special teams helped erased those feelings. As far as his game-swinging kick return, Reed said he was just doing what he’s supposed to do.
“I know how important special teams is to win a football game,” Reed said. “I just did what I could to help spark the football team.”
While Kelley and Reed made their impact on the Chargers offensive and special team units, linebacker Kenneth Murray Jr. was quietly having a productive afternoon as the team’s second-leading tackler against the Bengals. Selected by the Chargers in the first round of this year’s draft, the former University of Oklahoma star was impressive in his own right, registering eight tackles, four of them solo.