Chargers No. 1 back Austin Ekeler knows he can’t do it alone
To understand how far Austin Ekeler has traveled as an NFL running back, consider this:
Three years ago this week, he made his first roster with the Chargers only because of his performance in the final preseason game.
But now, Ekeler explained Thursday that he just spent his third training camp encouraging the coaches to not give him opportunities.
Instead, Ekeler said he preferred that the team pass that work on to the young running backs behind him, knowing depth at the position will be critical this season.
“I need help,” Ekeler said. “We’re only going to be as good as the whole running back room. It’s not like, ‘Hey, there’s one guy that’s just going to be carrying the rock.’ I’m sharing the love, man. Everyone get some reps and everyone get some experience.”
A former undrafted rookie, Ekeler is now the Chargers’ undisputed No. 1 running back. He signed a four-year, $24.5-million extension in March, the team having decided to part ways with Melvin Gordon.
With starting safety Derwin James sidelined after knee surgery, second-year Charger Nassir Adderley is getting a chance to show his worth.
Justin Jackson and rookie Josh Kelley are next on the depth chart, Kelley being a fourth-round pick out of UCLA.
Lacking the number of snaps that traditionally go to a starter, Ekeler said he has been running on the side during practice in an attempt to keep up his conditioning.
With no preseason games because of the COVID-19 pandemic, he explained that tackling could be an issue during Week 1. This would be particularly notable in that Ekeler already has a history of being a tackle-breaker.
He certainly sounds like a running back ready to run after a season ramp-up that included nothing but practice.
“I just have this itch,” Ekeler said, “this itch to go live, actually test the defense out.”
Wide receiver Mike Williams spent practice Thursday training on his own as he continues to come back from a shoulder injury. Offensive coordinator Shane Steichen sounded optimistic that Williams could be available for the opener in Cincinnati.
“Mike’s gotta be ready to play,” Steichen said. “I think Mike’s got that mind-set to be ready to play, and we gotta be ready to go. We look forward to having him on Sept. 13.”
Following surgery to repair a meniscus tear in his right knee, Chargers safety Derwin James is expected to be ready for the start of the 2021 season.
Center Mike Pouncey’s status for the opener is in doubt. The four-time Pro Bowl player has been dealing with an undisclosed injury that has kept him from practicing since early in training camp.
In Pouncey’s absence, the Chargers have been starting Dan Feeney at center, with Forrest Lamp taking over Feeney’s spot as the starter at left guard.
The other Chargers who didn’t practice included Jackson (toe) and tight end Virgil Green (undisclosed).
Jackson was hurt during a scrimmage Sunday as he again struggles to remain on the field. In two seasons, Jackson has been limited to 20 games because of health issues.
“He’s frustrated, just like anyone with any injury,” Ekeler said. “In the past, he’s had that reputation and he doesn’t want to continue that, which 100% I agree. It always seems like it’s little things…He’ll be back, pretty soon hopefully.”
In fours seasons at Northwestern, Jackson was known for his durability. He finished his career as the school’s all-time leader in rushing attempts and yards. When he was done, only two players in Big Ten history had more carries.
In the NFL, Jackson’s experience so far as been quite the opposite.
Will Chargers star receiver Keenan Allen be able to be as productive with offense shifting its focus under new quarterback Tyrod Taylor?
“Sometimes it just comes down to luck,” Ekeler said. “It’s crazy…That’s just sometimes how football works.”
Entering his second season, Jerry Tillery’s role has been expanding in recent weeks.
A first-round pick in 2019, Tillery continues to work at both tackle and the big end position where Joey Bosa starts. At that spot especially, the 6-foot-6 Tillery is able to use his length.
“He jumped out a little bit at big end,” defensive coordinator Gus Bradley said. “I see him this year playing both positions.” Tillery had a tough rookie year, often being overpowered. He missed the 2019 offseason program and the start of training camp dealing with a shoulder injury from college.
He is now one of the players Bradley identified as growing the most since last season.
“He’s just playing stronger,” Bradley said. “You’re seeing a more confident player.”
Linebacker Denzel Perryman, who has been slowed lately by an undisclosed physical issue, pronounced himself healthy Thursday. Asked about his role in 2020, he said: “My role is to stay healthy. That’s the key thing, the main thing.” Perryman dealt with some leg problems last season but appeared in 14 games after two years of missing significant time because of injury…The Chargers players are off Friday and Saturday and won’t practice again until next week…NFL rosters need to be cut to 53 players by 1 p.m. Saturday.
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