When the Chargers’ rookies gathered for the first few times in San Diego for their minicamp, fourth-round pick Rayshawn Jenkins looked around at his new teammates.
There were the recognizable faces. Clemson’s Mike Williams had won a national title. Iowa’s Desmond King had won an award recognizing him as the top defensive back in the nation. Other players in the room attended Indiana, Notre Dame and other big-time national programs.
Then Jenkins saw Austin Ekeler — the 5-foot-9 guy from the tiny Colorado college in the Rocky Mountains.
“I thought he was a guy who was here just because he worked hard and stuff like that,” Jenkins admitted.
This, he’d soon realize, was an incorrect assessment.
Since that camp, Ekeler’s become a favorite among his teammates and fellow rookies, an underdog story that’s had some high-profile ups and downs.
Most recently, Ekeler fumbled during the fourth quarter of the Chargers’ loss in Kansas City — one of the turnovers that helped bury the Chargers’ doomed comeback attempts. And, adding injury to insult, Ekeler broke his left hand on the play.
With that break, the Chargers could lose coach Anthony Lynn’s versatile backfield weapon and force the team to look to another underdog from its past, one left behind by Ekeler’s ascent — Branden Oliver, who led the Chargers in rushing as an undrafted rookie in 2014.
But the Chargers haven’t give up on Ekeler yet. He will try to practice Wednesday with the injury — one some thought would almost surely end his season. Lynn said Monday that running backs can “carry the ball in one hand” and that Ekeler, a special teams star, might be able to play on that unit.
If he doesn’t respond well Wednesday and Ekeler’s season is over, the Chargers feel comfortable that they still have found a long-term fit for their roster.
As Melvin Gordon’s backfield mate, Ekeler gained 539 yards from scrimmage on 74 touches (7.3 yards per). He also scored five touchdowns, tied with Keenan Allen for second most on the team.
“I thought he handled that role really well, especially for a rookie coming in here his first year and playing this much football,” Lynn said. He hasn’t played this much football in his life. And a lot of guys, especially in their rookie year, they hit the wall at some point. And we felt like he kept getting better. So I was pleased with his role and how he played.”
Ekeler’s continued improvement can be traced back to when the players and coaches first got a chance to see him.
“In minicamps, I would’ve been cut,” Ekeler said earlier this month. “I was playing slow. I didn’t know the offense well. I was all over the place.”
Chargers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt said he wasn’t exactly blown away, either.
“To me, the great side of pro football is when you see young man like Austin, who you didn’t know a lot about. Remember rookie minicamp where he came in and you’re like, ‘Who is this guy?’ He just wanted to learn,” Whisenhunt said. “He just wanted to get better and over the course of time, you’ve seen just that. It’s exciting to see him make some plays and grow as a player, and that’s been a big part of the reason we’ve been able to do some good things.”
He’s also, though, been involved in two very bad things — a pair of costly fumbles.
Ekeler was part of the Chargers’ late-game collapse in Jacksonville. His fumble came during a brutal final two minutes of regulation when the Chargers were protecting a lead, intercepted two Blake Bortles passes and still couldn’t win.
His fumble Saturday in Kansas City came on the Chargers’ first drive of the fourth quarter when they trailed by a touchdown.
“He’s young,” Lynn said. “And I don’t perceive him to be a fumbler, but he did fumble the ball in some critical situations. He’s going to have to learn from that real quick.”
The NFL doesn’t have a lot of patience — just ask Oliver.
After leading the Chargers’ in rushing in 2014, injuries slowed him in 2015 and completely cost him the 2016 season.
This season, while Oliver dealt with a hamstring injury, a door opened for Ekeler to run through. However, Oliver is likely get a chance to contribute in the last two regular-season games.
“It’s huge for Branden,” Lynn said. “He was inactive for the last month or so, and now he gets to step in and be a complementary back, and play football.”
A role that Ekeler had been developing.
“It’s starting to become second nature now,” he said earlier this month. “It’s starting to help me play faster, and I can start to curb my game around being a better NFL player. Stuff I used to do in college doesn’t work anymore. It’s a new learning process, this first year. “I’ve learned what I need to do, what works and what doesn’t, so I can practice that now and in the offseason as well.”