Two games last September may have provided a snapshot of what to expect from the Los Angeles Chargers backfield in 2020.
In Weeks 1 and 2 of the 2019 NFL regular season, Austin Ekeler totaled 287 yards and scored four touchdowns. Justin Jackson rushed for 116 yards on 13 carries (8.9 yards per carry) and also had a score called back due to holding.
A calf injury after Week 3 sidelined Jackson for five weeks. Once healthy, carries were hard to come by. Melvin Gordon was back to carrying the load as Ekeler continued to excel as a do-it-all offensive weapon.
So were those two games in 2019 lightning in a bottle or the start of a special pairing? On Tuesday, Ekeler discussed the importance of a backfield committee – which now includes rookie Joshua Kelley – and his excitement for a healthy Jackson as a running mate.
"He was hurt a lot last year and I know he's a great player," Ekeler said of Jackson, "and I know he just needs a chance to stand out and I think he's going to do great."
Jackson and Kelley are the primary candidates to take over the 204 touches that Gordon received last season in Los Angeles. Although Ekeler is considered the starter, he's well aware that his role is maximized with a capable complement.
Ekeler pointed to past tandems including the Saints' Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram in 2018 as blueprints for success: backs with different skill sets who work together to keep the other fresh for a 16-game season.
Self-admittedly, Ekeler said his body isn't built to be an every-down running back. Making the most of his 369 touches the last two seasons is what made his partnership with Gordon so successful.
You'll still see Ekeler all over the field in 2020. He said his offensive responsibilities won't change, only the backs whom he shares the workload with.
"It's been perfect for me because that's kind of been my role," Ekeler said. "Like I've been splitting 50-50. And so, I'm expecting a little bit more of that this year as well with the other guys."
Kelley enters the NFL with a pair of productive seasons in the Pac-12 under his belt. In two years at UCLA, he rushed for 2,303 yards (5.1 yards per carry) and 24 touchdowns.
Then there's Jackson, who's entering his third season in Los Angeles. His rookie season included a string of performances instrumental in getting the Chargers to the playoffs in 2018.
Ekeler said he's never seen anyone play the position like Jackson. He joked that he tries to emulate Jackson's running style in practice, but can't "because my body just doesn't function the way his does."
"I'm telling you, I love watching J.J. run," Ekeler said. "Like, if he can stay healthy, this man is so unique – like, so unique."
So perhaps those two games last September gave us a glimpse of the future. The 28th-ranked rushing attack in 2019 is expected to markedly improve with a new-look offensive line and a mobile quarterback like Tyrod Taylor, who Ekeler said can improve the running game "tremendously."
But, ultimately, it's up to Ekeler and Co. – and he couldn't care less who gets the credit.
"People will assume, 'Oh, you're the starting running back, you're gonna get all the reps,'" he said. "I still think it's going to be split between me and a dynamic of the other running backs.
"I might get more of the load. I might not. And, either way, it's just about getting people who are best in that situation on the field."
Take a look at some photos from the second week of Chargers Training Camp 2020, presented by SoFi.