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Chargers Head Coach Norv Turner hopes that No. 24 is a number he can dial with more frequency in 2012.
That means Ryan Mathews, the Chargers’ Pro Bowl running back fresh off a 1,500-yard campaign that ended with an invitation to play in the Pro Bowl, should be one of the NFL’s top workhorses and a Fantasy Football favorite in 2012.
Mathews rushed for 1,091 yards in 2011 and added 455 as a pass-catcher to become just the 14th player in team history to top 1,500 total yards from scrimmage, earning the Chargers’ offensive player of the year award.
“We’re going to give Ryan everything he can handle,” said Turner of his expectations for Mathews. “Ryan is going to get an opportunity to play a lot of football and he’s grown over the last two years, developing like a young player should.”
Mathews looks like a chiseled physical specimen as he makes his way around Chargers Park. It’s really the first time as a pro he’s been able to enjoy a full offseason working with his teammates and coaches, including the Chargers’ strength and conditioning program.
“I’ve been working hard this offseason and I’ve been preparing myself for this upcoming season,” Mathews said. “Actually getting to work out with the team and stuff; basically just being with the team and being able to be here with the coaches and really getting work in. That’s what I didn’t get last year.”
New fullback Le’Ron McClain, who’s lined up in front of some talented backs during his career, has been impressed by what he’s seen in Mathews.
“He reminds me of Ray Rice with the power,” explained McClain. “People may not think Ray Rice has power, but Ray can catch a check-down and use his power to get up the field and get 10 or 12 yards. And he has the smoothness of Arian Foster for running stretch plays, getting into the gap and turning on that other gear down the sidelines. He’s got all dimensions because he can do everything. Ryan’s a two-type of back because he can hit you with the power and he has speed. I don’t know if a lot of people know about it, but he’s fast.”
Only the 10th player in team history to top 1,000 yards rushing, Mathews really found his legs late in the season, rushing for more than 100 yards in consecutive games against Denver, Jacksonville and Buffalo. During that same stretch, he put together a string of five-straight games in which he had at least one run of 20 yards or longer. Only two other players in franchise history, Natrone Means and Paul Lowe, had similar streaks. Mathews’ average of 4.9 yards per carry became the sixth-highest in team history (min. 200 attempts).
The late-season push is what earned Mathews a spot as a second-alternate on the AFC Pro Bowl roster. And when two players ahead of him pulled out of the game, Mathews got the call that there was a ticket to Hawaii waiting with his name on it. Though a bit overwhelming, that week in Hawaii did a lot to boost Mathews’ confidence.
“Just being able to be around (the other Pro Bowl players), to be invited and get to fly out there and everything,” said Mathews of the experience. “Just being able to be on the same field as them and the same locker room and see what they do and I talked to a few of the guys and I think it boosted my confidence also. It’s kind of overwhelming to be there the first time and see all those guys, but it helped boost my confidence a little more.”
As a former first-round draft pick, Mathews knows all eyes are on him to succeed and he’s meeting the challenge head on. Though they’ve only been working together for about two months, McClain can sense that Mathews is ready for a big year.
“His confidence level is all the way up,” said McClain. “He knows the workload that he has to take on this year. He looks smooth and fast, he’s catching the ball great and he’s getting his conditioning level up to the maximum. I think he’s doing great.”
And when asked about it himself, Mathews only needed a few words to answer.
“I’m ready. Yeah, I’m ready.”