Chargers’ Josh Kelley struggling a bit with his confidence

Chargers running back Joshua Kelley tries to leap over oncoming Las Vegas Raiders free safety Lamarcus Joyner.
Chargers running back Joshua Kelley tries to leap over oncoming Las Vegas Raiders free safety Lamarcus Joyner at SoFi Stadium on Sunday in Inglewood.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Chargers rookie running back Josh Kelley found out quickly that success in the NFL is something you have to earn and sustain every week.

The former UCLA Bruin shined early in the season, rushing for at least 60 yards in the first two games and scoring a touchdown in his pro debut.

But fumbles in consecutive, close contests against the Carolina Panthers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers hurt the 2020 fourth-round pick’s confidence, and that seeped into his performance. It’s his first test of adversity at this level, he said.


“I never really had issues like that in college,” said Kelley, who rushed for 2,394 yards and scored 25 touchdowns in two seasons at UCLA. “When it happened to me in back-to-back weeks, it definitely ate me up a bit. But what I’ve learned in this league is that you have to bounce back and have that next-play mentality.”

The Chargers need Kelley and his upbeat attitude to continue growing. Since first-string running back Austin Ekeler suffered a hamstring injury Oct. 4 against the Buccaneers, the Chargers have yet to find his undisputed replacement. Ekeler, who signed a $24.5-million contract extension in March, led the Chargers last season with 11 total touchdowns and posted 1,550 yards from scrimmage.

Chargers coach Anthony Lynn cannot believe what the team is experiencing with the last-second losses and blown leads.

Nov. 9, 2020

With that loss of production, the Chargers turned to a host of other players and concepts. So far, coach Anthony Lynn said he’s generally satisfied. The Chargers rank eighth in the league with 135.6 rushing yards per game, and Lynn said he feels they can move the ball on the ground when needed. As the team grapples with disappointments of all sorts, Lynn said the run game isn’t one of them.

“I believe it’s gotten better,” Lynn said. “I don’t see the rushing attack as a problem right now.”

That wasn’t his sentiment two weeks ago. Quarterback Justin Herbert rushed for 66 yards, a team high, in the Chargers’ 39-29 win against the Jacksonville Jaguars. They used six other ball carriers that game, including third-string quarterback Easton Stick in a wildcat-like package and end-around sweeps with wide receivers. Herbert’s mobility that game extended drives, but Lynn said the running backs could have played better.

Lynn, a former running back, said he challenged his players in the position room, saying he wanted “someone to get in and get into a rhythm and just take over that backfield.” No one has yet. But instead, players have taken turns shuffling the hot hand.

Chargers running back Joshua Kelley slips past Carolina Panthers outside linebacker Jeremy Chinn and defensive end Efe Obada
Chargers running back Joshua Kelley slips past Carolina Panthers outside linebacker Jeremy Chinn and defensive end Efe Obada at SoFi Stadium.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

On Sunday against the Las Vegas Raiders, it was Kalen Ballage, who rushed for 69 yards and a touchdown in 15 carries. A fourth-round pick by the Miami Dolphins in 2018, Ballage started this season with the New York Jets before the Chargers signed him to the practice squad in October. When running back Justin Jackson suffered a knee injury, Lynn inserted Ballage into the rotation with Kelley. Though it was a fast turnaround, Ballage said he felt ready.

“I pride myself on being prepared, so even though it was a short-notice thing over the last couple of weeks, I’ve made sure to put the work in to know my stuff so when I get out there, I’m reliable,” Ballage said.

His performance was similar to Troymaine Pope, who rushed for 67 yards in 10 carries in the 31-30 loss against the Denver Broncos. Pope, an undrafted free agent in his fourth year, was also elevated from the practice squad, but suffered a concussion during the game and is still sidelined.

Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert and Dolphins signal-caller Tua Tagovailoa is poised to be one of the most interesting duels of the 2020 NFL season.

Nov. 9, 2020

Kelley said he’s learned from Pope and Ballage. But their recent uptick in snaps have slightly cut into Kelley’s workload. He posted single-digit rush attempts in consecutive weeks. Still, he views it as an opportunity to learn.

“It’s all about next man up,” Kelley said. “The guys that we have in our room, they’re all great, experienced veterans out there making their plays. That’s what I love because I feed off that.”


Lynn said Kelley is “on the rebound” from his fumbles, saying he’s running hard, but “not as instinctively” as he used to. He declined to put a timetable on Ekeler’s return, but said his recovery is going smoothly. Until then, he said he is confident in the other runners to continue the positive trend.

“We’ve got a group of young backs that I think we can build some things around,” he said.