Figuring out the Chargers running game

(News4usonline) – Running backs for the Los Angeles Chargers have one last opportunity to impress coaches and show them they belong on the team’s 53-man roster for the regular season. Outside of Austin Ekeler, the starter at running back for the Chargers, a coin flip just might be the only thing that determines who else sits beside Ekeler in the backfield.

Let’s start with Joshua Kelley, the affable second player from UCLA. Kelley is one of those running backs who have enough gas in the tank to outrun defenders and has enough moxie to mix things up running between the tackles. Kelley’s first year in the league produced mixed results for the 2021 fourth-round draft pick.

Los Angeles Chargers running back Larry Roundtree III (34) runs up the middle against the Dallas Cowboys in a preseason game on Aug. 20, 2022. Photo by Mark Hammond courtesy of the Compton Bulletin for News4usonline

He did okay, but there is a sense that he could have done more than the 102 yards he rushed for last year. Kelley showed some flashes of what he could do. He’s big, physical and has deceptive speed. Then there is Larry Roundtree III. Roundtree is a bruiser-type running back that you probably wouldn’t want to have a meet and greet with at 2 a.m.

If Kelley can give the Chargers a physical presence, you might as well layer that point of emphasis times four with Roundtree. Roundtree runs downhill with an attitude and hits defenders while rushing the football like he is simply annoyed that they have the audacity to get in his way.

After a training camp practice, Roundtree talked about what it was like getting acclimated to all things NFL during his rookie season to getting that year under his belt where he is now more comfortable getting locked into what the coaches want from him.

“The draft process it’s a bit of a whirlwind,” Roundtree said. “I would say, as far as last year, you go through the whole process of the draft process and you have to catch up on the offense, but I feel like this offseason, I’ve been completely dialing myself in with the whole offense, special teams, and getting the feel of actually what’s going on. That takes time, coming in as a rookie you’re trying to catch up on everything. Everybody catches on to things at a different time, but this offseason, I’ve been really locked in on everything.”

Los Angeles Chargers running back Kevin Marks Jr. (39) tries to get around the Dallas Cowboys defense in a preseason game on Aug. 20, 2022. Photo by Mark Hammond courtesy of the Compton Bulletin for News4usonline

Roundtree is around the size of Kelley, but he delivers blows to defenders that are sometimes stunning and frightening. The Chargers backfield is even more crowded with rookie Isaiah Spiller, Kevin Marks Jr., and Leddie Brown thrown into the mix. That abundance will thin out considerably by the time Aug. 30 rolls around. That is the final date for NFL teams to have their 53-man roster in place.

Kelley welcomes the competition.

“I love it. For us, as competitors, honesty and truthfully, this is how you get better and how you know where you stand,” Kelley said. “He made it clear Day 1. He was like, ‘Look, this is a competition.’ For me, as a competitor, I love it. I like to challenge myself. I like to try to prove myself. He’s made it clear and I’m just trying to embrace it. I’m not worried, necessarily, about the end right now. I’m just worrying about how I get better. Preseason, attacking that, that stuff will take care of itself. You have to embrace it to be competitive, for sure.”

So there is no doubt that finding the right guy behind Ekeler is critical as the team moves on to the 2023 regular season. Marks (Buffalo), Brown (West Virginia), and Spiller (Texas A&M) are rookies. Roundtree, like Kelley, is in his sophomore season. Although Kelley was listed as the team’s No. 2 running back behind Ekeler for the Chargers’ preseason game against the Dallas Cowboys, the competition for that second or third spot is close, Chargers head coach Brandon Staley said.

“So far, no one’s really separated, but they’re all running hard,” said Staley after a training camp practice on Aug. 23. “We just have to keep working through it. A lot of times, when you’re in a situation like that, you get a feel for who’s got the hot hand, and that can change from week to week, and the style of game may change who you’re playing. Those guys, they know what to do, they run hard, and I think that they’ll all be positive players when their number’s called.”

Los Angeles Chargers rookie running back Leddie Brown (35) looks to run the football up the field against the Dallas Cowboys during a preseason game on Aug. 20, 2022. Photo by Mark Hammond courtesy of the Compton Bulletin for News4usonline

All the running backs they have in camp bring something different to the table. And they all have something to prove. Thus far, statistically, there has not been much separation. In the Chargers’ 32-18 defeat to the Cowboys in the team’s second preseason game, third-string quarterback Easton Stick was the leading rusher with 24 yards.

Kelley followed with 18 yards on 11 carries. Roundtree ended his evening with 11 yards on four carries. Brown (11 yards), Marks (10 yards), and Spiller (3 yards) all contributed. Staley was not impressed by the production of his backfield.

“It’s all 11 guys, but all five running backs didn’t do much tonight,” Staley said. “I don’t think that any of the five of them played very well. We’ll have to look at it, but just being out there on the field, I didn’t think any of the five played very well tonight.”

That leaves Kelley, Roundtree, Brown, Marks, and Spiller battling it out in the team’s preseason finale against the New Orleans Saints. But making the team is likely to be determined by each individual’s play on special teams. That’s how Ekeler earned his spot on the team when he was an undrafted free agent coming out of Western Colorado University.

Ekeler, evaluating the play of the other runners in the first preseason game, said gaining a berth on the roster is going to come down to who is the most effective on special teams.

Los Angeles Chargers running back Joshua Kelley (25) tries to get the extra yard with a Los Angeles Rams defender draped all over him in a preseason game played at SoFi Stadium on Aug. 14, 2022. Photo by Mark Hammond courtesy of the Compton Bulletin for News4usonline

“I thought they ran hard. They had very limited mistakes. I think another big thing that we saw was special teams,” Ekeler remarked. “Special teams is going to be a huge part of it. That’s where I think it’s going to be that third spot and the second spot, really. “

“They will be solidified with who contributes most on special teams,” Ekeler added. “As far as what they did in the running back spot, they were solid, they made the right cuts, hit the right holes, ran hard. They’re going to be themselves. Josh had some great catches, getting up the field and running hard like he has. Like I said, special teams is going to be the determinator.”

Whoever the Chargers pick to flush out its running back room will be expected to help the team improve on its rushing attack from a season ago. Last year, the Chargers ranked No. 21 in the NFL in rushing. Justin Herbert, the Chargers starting quarterback, was third on the team in rushing with 302 yards, behind Ekeler’s 911 yards and Justin Jackson’s 364.

The competition between the five running backs is bound to have a changeover effect with the backup being more in tune to help the Chargers be more productive in the ground game this season. Spiller said it has been tough, but beneficial at the same time.

“It’s been fierce every day,” Spiller said. “Coming out, having the right mindset going against the linebackers. Coming out here in full pads, it’s been great. I’ve been adjusting well, so I’d like to keep going and get better.”