Below are three takeaways from Austin Ekeler's end of season press conference.
Enjoying the journey to 20 touchdowns
2021 was an efficient year for Austin Ekeler. The Chargers lead running back took underrated to a whole new level as his 20 total touchdowns tied Indianapolis Colts running back Johnathan Taylor for most touchdowns in the league in 2021. Ekeler joined Hall of Fame running back LaDainian Tomlinson as the only running backs in Chargers history to record 20 touchdowns in one season. Ekeler also became only the second undrafted running back in NFL history to score 20 or more touchdowns in a single season.
Ekeler explained in his postseason press conference that he got a little emotional as he and running backs coach Derrick Foster reflected on the 20 touchdown milestone and his journey in the NFL to this point.
"You went from undrafted out of this little, tiny mountain town and you led the entire NFL in scoring,'" Ekeler said. "It's like, wow. What a journey it's been, man. It's been incredible, just coming in with the same mindset every year and really just chipping my way to a position where now I can say that I've established myself in the NFL."
In 2017, Ekeler's first season in the NFL, he recorded just 47 carries as the majority of his snaps came from special teams. Fast forward to 2021 and Ekeler surpassed his previous career high in rushing attempts by over 100 carries with 206 attempts this season.
Ekeler took time to reflect on his journey in the NFL from being a core special teamer to having a lead role in a top 5 offense in the NFL.
"The journey is the most important part of the ride and getting to the end number," Ekeler said. "It's the journey. It's all about the journey. When you hear about the Mamba Mentality and you hear about these great people that have done great things in their lives, it's all about the journey, it's all about the people, it's all about what's gone into their success to get them there, which is then highlighted."
Ekeler also sees scoring 20 touchdowns as a milestone to build off of heading into 2022 and proof that all the hard work he's put in has paid off.
Ekeler's mindset to football and life
As Ekeler's role in the Bolts offense has evolved, the one thing that has stayed the same according to No. 30 is his mindset. Whether it's preparing for a big game or working on a ranch as a kid in a small mountain town in Colorado, Ekeler talked about what his mind remains focused on.
"I've only known one mindset for my entire life," Ekeler said. "And that's pounding posts into the ground, working back on the ranch. Working through all of my year-round sports. It was always that you have pressure on you to work. You have to work. There's no real excuse, you just have to work. You have to get it done. Growing up like that, that's all I've ever known. All I've ever known is just work as hard as you can because that's your life — work — and continue to build, build, build. That's been part of me forever."
That mindset allowed Ekeler to score at least one touchdown in each of the Bolts' final eight games of the season helping make him just the sixth player in NFL history to record 12 rushing touchdowns and eight touchdown catches in a single season.
As far as setting season milestones or trying to reach 20 touchdowns, Ekeler explained how he simplifies his thought process on a daily basis.
"I focus on what's today?" he said. "What's today? Today is let's be efficient in today's game. Let's be efficient and at the end of this thing we can look up. We'll look up at the end of this thing. If I get too caught up and be like, 'Oh, I'm chasing these numbers,' I think you lose sight of what really matters — and that's the work that you put in to get there."
The dynamic duo of Herbert and Ekeler
This season, maybe more than ever, Ekeler showed the league his ability to be a complete running back. Ekeler can catch the ball at an elite level, run through or around defenses, and acts as leader and mentor to younger players trying to make their mark in the league. This season, Ekeler caught eight touchdown passes from quarterback Justin Herbert, the most receiving touchdowns by a running back this season.
Ekeler had a chance to talk about what it's like to play alongside Herbert and the type of player No. 10 is when the Bolts need to make a play.
"People wonder why we go for it on fourth down," Ekeler said. "Well, there you go. If you've ever needed a display for it, that's the confidence that [Head] Coach [Brandon Staley] sees and that's what he knows he has. He knows that he has a guy that can go out there and do it. He showed that when his back is against the wall that, I think, he plays at an even higher level."
The duo help guide the Bolts to the fourth ranked overall offense in the league with 58 touchdowns between Ekeler and Herbert alone. Ekeler talked about the excitement that he gets knowing he's playing alongside a 'special' talent like his quarterback.
"That guy makes me want to play forever around him," he said. "Because he's a guy that, man, you just believe. If we're on the field, we have a chance to go score and we have J-Herb as quarterback and a great O-line that has been protecting him? Like, wow, this is something special. We have a chance. We're going to go get it done."
In the Bolts' four primetime matchups in 2021, Herbert stepped up to the challenge in a big way with Ekeler following suit as well. According to Chargers Communications, Ekeler scored nine touchdowns on the big stage, the second-most primetime scrimmage touchdowns in a single season in NFL history.
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