Column: Chargers, Lynn discover something special in running back Austin Ekeler
Largely unknown beyond tiny Western State Colorado University in Gunnison, Austin Ekeler went undrafted in 2017 but was determined to make an impression as a free agent at the Chargers’ rookie mini-camp. Despite his best efforts, however, the muscular 5-foot-10, 200-pound running back was just another face in the crowd to coach Anthony Lynn.
But, as with the previous occasions when Ekeler faced doubts or rejection — out of high school, Division I schools had no interest and he was told he’d probably have to become a defensive back to play at all — he wasn’t willing to give up.
Lynn knew nothing about Ekeler when the Chargers signed him. To Lynn, Ekeler was “just a back” brought in by a scout to replace a player the coach had wanted but lost to another team. So Lynn was caught by surprise when Ekeler walked into his office after mini-camp ended and asked what it would take to make the team.
Lynn’s answer was a question: “I said, ‘First of all, who are you?’”
As Lynn and the Chargers discovered, Ekeler is dynamic and an eager learner. Advised by Lynn to start by becoming valuable on special teams, Ekeler quickly became a standout and his development earned more time after the first month.
“His speed, his willingness, his aggressiveness really opened people’s eyes covering kicks and covering punts,” Chargers general manager Tom Telesco said. “And then when he did that, he went out for some more snaps on offense and he just took off with it.”
He had some wobbles, including a costly fumble in the last two minutes of an overtime loss at Jacksonville and another that quashed a potential comeback against Kansas City, but he emphatically seized his chances.
He collected 260 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 47 carries as a complement to Melvin Gordon, and his versatility continued to surface with 27 pass receptions for 279 yards and three touchdowns.
Even a broken left hand late in the season could not keep him off the field. He still made an impact on special teams despite playing with a hugely wrapped hand.
“Pound for pound, my strength and conditioning coach told me he’s the strongest guy on the team,” Lynn said, “and I think you can see it in the way he runs the football. His balance, it shows up.”
So does Ekeler’s determination.
“He came out of a small college and he had the mental toughness and the grit and the work ethic,” Lynn said. “He’s very strategic. He put together a plan and he executed it.”
After a solid debut and an offseason spent working out in Southern California — minus a few weeks to finish his business degree, with Lynn’s blessing — Ekeler should feel at ease his second time around camp. He feels more comfortable in terms of the day-to-day routines, but familiarity doesn’t equate to complacency.
That’s not in his plan.
“That’s a reoccurring thing every year you come in. They bring in new guys, people want to see what you are, physically and mentally,” said Ekeler, who won praise from Lynn after he had five carries for 22 yards and two receptions for 42 yards in the Chargers’ 24-17 exhibition loss at Arizona last week. “Every day you’ve got to come out and prove yourself and show that consistency, that you can still play.
“That’s just a good way to go about life — not thinking that anything is owed to you but you’ve got to earn it. And you keep earning it and working your way up, and if you get stuck somewhere, you’ve got to keep working at the things that are holding you there.”
Hard work doesn’t scare Ekeler. He grew up on a ranch outside of Eaton, Colo., about 70 miles northeast of Denver, where he and his younger brother were raised by a single mom. He played soccer, ran track and competed in the long jump but didn’t play varsity football until his sophomore year.
Along with school and practices, he had to take care of his chores at the ranch, which meant tending to horses, cows and chickens.
“It was a handful,” he said.
It also was a different upbringing from what most of his teammates had.
“I lived a lot further out than all the rest of my friends, so it kind of kept me focused. I didn’t really have distractions,” he said. “After school I was straight home, just because of the 30-minute drive. So I think it kept me more focused than usual.”
That labor makes the daily grind of training camp seem like a breeze.
“This is a lot funner. I’d rather be out here than building fence,” he said. “I’m loving it out here with the guys. Living the dream, a lot of people would say.”
Most dreams are actually built on sweat, effort and acknowledgement of the need to improve. Lynn wants Ekeler to “just keep doing what he’s doing. Just take it to the next level.”
Ekeler is ready to do that, though he said he hasn’t set statistical goals.
“I think that’s the wrong way to look at it, actually, because if you’re doing the right things on the field and you’re showing the consistency, then the numbers and things will come,” he said. “If you’re sitting there thinking about numbers, you’re not thinking about the things you should be thinking about — the assignments, the things on the field, what’s keeping you in the game. I’m not really a numbers guy.”
Nor is Telesco.
“He can play in this league, that we know,” Telesco said. “I’m not someone to put a number on what his potential could be. I know he can help us win football games.”
Ekeler thinks so, too. That’s definitely part of his plan.
“On offense and special teams, where I’m contributing, we’re expecting to be top of the league in what we’re doing,” he said. “On offense, scoring points. On special teams, making plays and trying to get turnovers for our offense. As long as we’re healthy it’s going to be fun to watch our offense. We’re going to put up some numbers.”
Follow Helene Elliott on Twitter @helenenothelen
12:57 p.m.: This article was updated to include “Colorado” in the first reference to Western State Colorado University.
This article was originally published Aug. 15 at 1:50 p.m.
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