Life in the NFL can turn on a dime – just ask a running back.
"I feel like I just got in the league, but now I'm the oldest guy in the room."
Exactly three years ago, Austin Ekeler was an undrafted free agent from Western State doing anything possible to get noticed during organized team activities. Fast forward to May 2020, the 25-year-old has established himself as one of most versatile backs in the league. His early success has led to a new multi-year contract, as well as being a reliable voice in what is currently a virtual locker room.
"I think that's the biggest thing with Austin is just growing as a leader," running backs coach Mark Ridgley said. "And again, not only of our room, but as a leader of our team. I think that's important. You lose guys like Philip (Rivers) and some older guys that have been around for a while – some voices that have resonated very loudly in our locker room. We need to replace that as well."
Ekeler is coming off his best season as a pro, including 92 catches for 993 yards and eight receiving touchdowns. Only the Panthers' Christian McCaffrey had more receptions (116) among running backs.
Now that Ekeler's cemented himself as a core player in Los Angeles, he said it's time to pay it forward. With Melvin Gordon and Derek Watt moving on this offseason, Ekeler is now the oldest member of the Chargers' running backs room. Instead of being the one asking the questions, he's answering them.
"Right now, I feel like my role has changed to help these younger guys," he said.
Ekeler's story also transcends his position group. He recently joined the Chargers' rookie seminar via Zoom to share his story as an UDFA, stressing the importance of having the proper mindset required to meet the moment.
"I'm just so open and so willing to share my story and what I did, and how I had success with it," Ekeler said. "And I think that's the most important part is that I did see success, so that's why people are attracted to me and how open I am to talk to you as a person."
As difficult of a climb that Ekeler had in 2017, this upcoming rookie class will be at even more of a disadvantage with the offseason being conducted virtually for the foreseeable future. Had this been the case three years ago, perhaps Ekeler's story wouldn't have the same trajectory.
"I don't know honestly if I would have made the team if I didn't have OTAs," he said. "Because for me, I needed OTAs to go out there – and I was trying 100 percent – but I needed to go out there and mess up. Because I went and messed up and was like, "OK, [these are] the things I need in this next month to go work on. And these guys aren't getting that right now."
When Ekeler was a rookie, Ridgley was a Chargers offensive assistant. He saw first-hand the work that Ekeler put in – primarily on special teams – which has translated to an integral role as an offensive weapon who can line up anywhere.
Ridgley called Ekeler a player who 'continually grows day after day' – something he hopes the newest Chargers will take note of.
"First and foremost, I think just him as a person – unbelievable kid," Ridgley said. "And the thing that I've been using him for as a motto for our young guys is just where he came from and how he got to where he is. I think he's a perfect example of coming in with nothing and look what he has now after these last few years."
The oldest guy in the room won't go at it alone in 2020. Third-year running back Justin Jackson has proven his capability when healthy. Rookie running back Joshua Kelley adds another dimension to the Bolts' new-look backfield, led by Ekeler.
"We got a good chemistry over there right now and I'm enjoying it," he said.