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Evaluating Austin Ekeler's 20 TD Season with Derrick Foster
Foster discusses how they can unlock more of Ekeler's game, what he's seeing from the other backs on the roster, and how to find consistency behind No. 30.
By Hayley Elwood Feb 15, 2022

2021 is in the rearview and 2022's offseason is here.

With that being said, we thought this would be a good time to check in with some people we don't hear from often: the Chargers position coaches.

A Conversation with the Chargers Position Coaches

Next up is running backs coach Derrick Foster.

Foster discussed how they can unlock more of Austin Ekeler's game, what he saw from the other running backs on the roster, and what needs to happen for the unit to find more consistency in 2022.

What was your take on working with this group of running backs this year?

Derrick Foster: First off, they were outstanding young men. I really enjoyed working with each one of them. They made me feel comfortable. We all got a chance to really know each other and that's one message that Brandon Staley preached this entire year: relationships. What we tried to do and what I tried to do with each one of those guys is develop a relationship early on with them. Once we did that, everything else was easier. It was easier to coach each one of them and know each one of them once we broke the ice with each other.

How did you break the ice? What is the key to getting those relationships going when you're all so new?

Foster: I think coming into a new situation, it's always important to share a piece of who you are, where you're from, and your background to open up to those guys first.  When you build a relationship, you build trust, and that comes from communication and understanding. I think once you understand a person and you're able to communicate, I think you develop a respect where now you feel comfortable sharing certain things. I just opened up myself and where I was from, how I got to where I am now and things I believe in from a philosophy/football/life perspective-standpoint. And then I decided to ask those guys what's important to them? Once they let their guards down bit by bit, they opened up more. I told them, I'm an open book. If they have a question about anything, football or life, come ask me. That's what I'm here for.

So everyone knows Austin Ekeler's story, but this year, I think we learned that he still has that same mindset that he entered the league with in 2017.

Staley said he was really proud of how you and the staff maximized his role. How were you able to do that?

Foster: The biggest thing was him understanding the system and the offense because obviously, it was different from what he's been used to. We were able to see some things he was able to do on film before minicamp and training camp, but then once we were able to see it live and work with him, we were able to say, 'Okay, here's what we can do with him and here's some things we can do to maximize his potential.' Kudos to [offensive coordinator] Joe Lombardi because I thought he did a heck of a job. He and Frank Smith of just coming together collectively with the run and pass game and how he fits in certain concepts and certain schemes. The rest, Austin came in and studied it. He and I spent some time, whether it was one-on-one time or at practice or in the film room. If he had questions, he was never afraid to ask. And I think that's in his nature. He's a young man who wants to get it right. He's a perfectionist in everything he does. That's just a testament to his work ethic. Once he started to understand the offense, I think it became easier for him to make those plays you saw on Monday, Sunday, and Thursday night.


League-best 20 touchdowns (12 rushing/8 receiving) | 20 TDs from scrimmage tied LT for second-most by a Charger in a single season.

Twenty total touchdowns, he had a ridiculous season.

Is there another level of his game that in your opinion, hasn't been unlocked?

Foster: I think there's more. In my honest opinion, I'm very confident that there's more inside of him that he's able to unlock. I think he's tapping into it. As the season went on, everything started to slow down for him. Everything. From the run game to the pass game, he was able to start seeing certain coverages. He was able to start seeing different looks up front with defensive-look structures. He was able to come to the sideline and communicate those things.

What was really a moment for me as a coach is when a player's able to come to the sideline and explain what happened, what he saw, and what he could do better. And in the meeting room, when he can coach himself, when he can point his own mistakes out, as a coach, not that you're looking for the easy route, but it makes your job so much easier. It was funny because any away trips, he would watch the film on the way over to the airport and as soon as we got up in the air at a certain height, he'd come [find me] and say, 'Hey coach, I missed this. Man, I could have done a better job at this.' Inside, I smile. Because I knew he was seeing big picture and he was starting to grasp exactly what we're trying to accomplish.

It's clicking for him and yet going back to what I said earlier of coming in as an undrafted running back, he still is a grinder - even though he's the elder statesman in the RBs room!

Foster: Absolutely! He is a grinder. That's what you love about him. He's a perfectionist in everything. I don't care what it is. Whether it's his foundation or football, he wants to make sure he puts his best foot forward. He's a competitor. He loves people. So he was able to bring those younger guys along. The first meeting with them was a head spinner for everyone – including myself – I'm installing a new system and we're all learning as we go. He had a ton of questions because it was different terminology, I coach differently than his previous coach, but since we got in there together, it was the best collective group when we were able to talk about it all together.


"Once he had to step up in the Houston game and his role became RB1, he found something down deep inside of him where he gained a lot of confidence."

Getting to Justin Jackson, he's someone whose career has been hindered by availability. But when he gets in games – you saw it against Houston when he stepped in for Austin – he shows flashes.

How would you describe what he brings to the offense?

Foster: When he's able to get in the offense and get in his groove, he's dynamic in terms of his shiftiness. Justin is very smart, he understands football from a bigger-picture standpoint and that's what you appreciate about him. He was very reliable on third down for us. On third downs in the NFL, you expect a lot of pressures, and he's able to identify those pre-snap reads.

Once he had to step up in the Houston game and his role became RB1, he found something down deep inside of him where he gained a lot of confidence. I didn't realize that he hadn't been in the end zone [since 2018] until that game. For any player, especially an offensive player, you've got that taste of finding the way to get back in there. I think it was a confidence boost for him because it hasn't been easy for him; he's been banged up, his role had been maximized on special teams, but he's a very reliable and trustworthy person. I think once things started slowing down for him and he didn't have as many responsibilities in other areas, he was able to hone in and find himself a little bit.

You talk about the guy who was the leading rusher in Northwestern history – he's a playmaker. He knows how to make plays and he understands the game.

What does Joshua Kelley need to do to become a more consistent running back in the NFL?

Foster: It's a confidence thing with JK – and I'm not saying that from a negative standpoint. I think he started to find that confidence within himself later in the season. And it's the consistency; confidence and consistency go hand-in-hand. It takes a constant effort, every day, to put forward the efforts that you can to be better than you were yesterday.

When things don't always go right for most players, some players can bounce back from certain mistakes faster than others. Some others let those mistakes linger and carry over to the next play. That's why as coaches, we preach the 'next play mentality.' Sometimes that hinders JK a little bit because he wants to be really good at this game and be a better football player. It matters to him; he cares about it. But at times, he's so self-conscious of the mistakes he makes, it can linger. Fast-forward to later on in the season, I think he started to get past that and be more consistent. These were things I saw in practice.


"They were outstanding young men. I really enjoyed working with each one of them. They made me feel comfortable. We all got a chance to really know each other and that’s one message that Brandon Staley preached this entire year: relationships. What we tried to do and what I tried to do with each one of those guys is develop a relationship early on with them. Once we did that, everything else was easier."

Another young guy is Larry Rountree III – he scored his first touchdown against the Minnesota Vikings and SoFi Stadium went nuts.

What did you see out of him in year one and where can he make a leap in year two?

Foster: I saw a kid who has the willingness and toughness to be a really good football player. You can talk about him and Joshua, those are players who haven't had a whole lot of playing experience [at this level.] I think with Larry, it's about maturing as a player on the field. Once things slow down, after playing in the Senior Bowl, training, learning a new offense and the pressure on you in-game, you're saying I gotta go play special teams, all this information is new because he's been spending years in another offense and now had to transition and come into the NFL to learn something else a lot faster. If not, he won't see the field as much.

With him, it's about slowing the game down, maturing on the field, and once he's able to do that, you'll start to see a more complete and efficient player.

Final question – backup running back. What is the key to finding consistency behind Austin?

Foster: I think the key is someone defining their role. On every great team, there's a player who has to define a role; whether it's the Lakers or Bulls, every player has a role they have to define. We have to be great at that role. Not everybody is probably gonna get as many accolades or shine as the other when it comes to that, but what people don't always see is the time and effort each one of the role players puts into it until the game time comes.

Moving forward, whoever it is will [need to have] consistency day in and day out to help relieve Austin, whether it's in the run game or pass game. We'll find ways to get Austin the ball, he'll get his touches, but when you wanna take a little bit off of him, you just want to make sure you can trust [the next guy] in situations knowing you're not gonna lose anything there and that you'll gain and operate efficiently as an offense. You wanna make sure he can make the routine plays and not only go in there and be average, but be an above average guy. Speaking of JJ, maybe he comes in and busts a run like he did against New England. A little boost can go a long way. Anybody who can come in add some value in that role and display toughness and consistency is what we're looking for.

Take a frame-by-frame look at Austin Ekeler run in his 4th touchdown during Sunday Night Football against the Steelers at SoFi Stadium.

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