The circumstances last year had Justin Jackson waiting for an opportunity.
On Thursday, his opportunity arrived with the Chargers’ first-team offense.
With Melvin Gordon’s holdout into its second week, Jackson and Austin Ekeler split time at starting running back in a joint practice with the Rams.
“I just feel more comfortable, more composed,” Jackson said. “I know the offense much better. I think everything’s just slowed down a lot for me. . . . I feel healthier than I’ve been, more explosive, stronger and just more confident really.”
A seventh-round pick in 2018, Jackson was hindered throughout his rookie training camp by a hamstring injury. He was able to do little until the Chargers’ final exhibition.
He played sparingly early in the regular season but emerged later when Gordon and Ekeler dealt with injuries. Jackson had 190 yards and two touchdowns on 38 carries during a four-game stretch starting the final week of November.
In Gordon’s absence, he and Ekeler will be counted on to fill the void created by the 2018 Pro Bowler’s contract situation.
“We’re holding it down until he gets back,” Jackson said. “He’s a part of this [running back] room. He knows that and we all know that. . . . We’re just waiting for him to get back. But until then we’re all trying to carve out a piece of where we might fit into this offense.”
Gordon, who is scheduled to make $5.6 million in the final year of his contract, is seeking an extension that would put him in line financially with the NFL’s highest-paid running backs.
His agent has told the Chargers that Gordon will not report until a new deal is signed and instead requested a trade. General manager Tom Telesco so far has dismissed the idea of moving Gordon. The sides are roughly $3 million per-season apart.
“Obviously, when Mel is here, he gets a majority of the first-team reps,” Jackson said. “Just for us to be able to mesh with [the offensive line] . . . to kind of develop that trust is really important. The more reps you get, the more comfortable you feel playing with the guys around you.”
Ekeler is entering his third year and has established himself as an effective counterpunch to Gordon. The two of them formed one of the league’s most productive running back duos in the first half of last season.
For now, however, the majority of the load will fall to Ekeler and Jackson, with Detrez Newsome as the No. 3 running back.
“Justin, he’s a creative runner,” Ekeler said. “There aren’t many people I’ve seen, in general, that run like he does. Like I tell him, he’s got the razzle-dazzle, some hocus-pocus . . . because you really don’t know what he’s going to do.”
Trent Scott spent Thursday at left tackle in place of starter Russell Okung, and Sam Tevi remained at right tackle.
Tevi started 14 games last season at right tackle and, when Okung was injured, one at left tackle.
He and Scott have been flip-flopping sides throughout training camp as the Chargers attempt to find their most effective alignment.
Scott signed with the Chargers during the 2018 offseason as an undrafted free agent out of Grambling State. He started at right tackle in the game Okung missed and appeared in eight other games as a rookie.
“He’s getting better every day,” Chargers coach Anthony Lynn said. “Unfortunately, you have to go through some things to get better. And he’s going through some things now. I thought today was good for him.”
The offensive line had a mixed performance against the Rams, whose defensive front includes Aaron Donald, a player often regarded as the best in the NFL at his position.
The Chargers were called for holding more than once and struggled at times keeping the Rams away from the quarterback. Holding on the back side of running plays will be a point of emphasis in the NFL this season.
“The offensive line held its own,” Lynn said. “They had some sacks. We had some sacks. We went back and forth on that. The young offensive line, I thought they stepped up. Maybe one too many penalties, too many holdings today. Other than that, I thought they protected fine.”
Okung remains unavailable after suffering a pulmonary embolism in June. The Chargers are unsure when he will return, Lynn saying Thursday, “We’ll do a recheck at the end of the month and see where he is.”
Keeping it clean
Lynn said he was pleased with the results of Thursday’s session.
“I thought that was a good, professional practice,” he said, smiling. “No fighting.”
He and Rams coach Sean McVay met with the officials beforehand to stress the importance of keeping play clean.
Both coaches had warned their players about a repeat of what happened two years ago when the teams had a joint practice in Irvine. That day featured several lost tempers and one notable skirmish.
“I feel like we got better today,” Lynn said. “They play at a faster pace than we’re used to seeing in practice. That’s going to get us right for games.”
The Chargers signed defensive lineman Dee Liner and waived tight end Daniel Helm. Wide receiver Fred Trevillion was waived from the reserve/injured list with an injury settlement.