It was exactly one year ago that Austin Ekeler was packing up his bags and boarding a flight to Southern California, seemingly the 90th man on the Chargers' 90-man roster.
Barely anyone outside of the Bolts' scouts and coaches knew about the 5-10, 200-pound running back out of tiny Western State in Colorado, but he was determined to show the world why the team inked him as an undrafted free agent.
Fast forward one year and the entire NFL knows his name.
Ekeler wasn't just a feel-good story for the Chargers in 2017 – he was one of the best in the entire league.
After an impressive showing in training camp and the preseason, Ekeler made the 53-man roster, eventually establishing himself as a key cog in the Bolts' offense as the team's primary complement to Melvin Gordon. Ekeker carried the rock 47 times for 260 yards and two touchdowns, averaging 5.5 yards per carry. He also emerged as a lethal option out of the backfield, hauling in 27 passes for 279 yards and three touchdowns, including three receptions of at least 20 yards.
Ekeler saw sporadic playing time over the first month of the season, which is why he fell just short of the threshold to qualify among league leaders. If he had, his 10.3 yards per catch would have ranked third among all running backs, sandwiched between Todd Gurley and Alvin Kamara.
So, entering his second year, Ekeler can rest easy knowing he's proved his worth, right?
If anything, Ekeler knows he has more to prove than ever before.
"You can never relax in this league!" he said defiantly when asked if he feels like he's arrived. "Never! It is the coaches' job to find better players to come in and replace us. They want to get the best players. So, it's my job as a player to keep my spot. I'm absolutely out here as a player to prove myself again. I have played (well), and that is an advantage, but that doesn't mean anything now. That was last year. This is a new year."
Ekeler was at his best as a rookie operating in open space. However, that is the area he singled out when asked what he aimed to improve most over the last few months.
"I was working on being better in open space whether that be on offense or on special teams with the ball in my hands. That also means working on my balance. I just got out of a special teams meeting, and there were times last year, especially at gunner, when I was running down the field and I fell. I lost control of my body, so body awareness is something else I need to work on."
The Chargers have a lengthy history of dynamic weapons out of the backfield. That includes all-around backs like LaDainian Tomlinson to others whose bread and butter was in the passing game like Darren Sproles and Danny Woodhead.
With his shifty wiggle and knowhow, Ekeler is often compared to the latter two. However, he wants to make it clear he has a long way to go before he can even be mentioned in the same breath. After all, Sproles and Woodhead are two of the best in NFL history to ever thrive in that role.
The second-year running back doesn't listen to those comparisons as he simply doesn't believe in them in general.
However, just like Philip Rivers knew he could rely on Sproles and Woodhead, number 17 expressed throughout the 2017 campaign that Ekeler earned that same level of trust.
"People keep comparing me to them, but I think I'm a unique kind of person, just like they are," Ekeler said. "I don't listen to comparisons. But I am trying to work myself in that that role. Hearing Philip felt that trust, that's big time. Phil is the captain of our offense. He runs the show out there. If he can't depend on you, you probably won't be on the field. That (trust) is something that you have to establish through film, answering questions and going through meetings with him. Protection meetings especially because we play a role there. I actually think that's the biggest thing he has to have trust in. Knowing we can block his blindside."
While Ekeler believes he has to earn his spot all over again, he does have a leg up in one major way.
It may sound crazy, but the 22-year old is actually the second longest tenured running back on the roster after Gordon.
As nearly everyone will note, there is nothing like experience when it comes to the NFL, which is why Ekeler believes he can further develop his game this offseason.
"I was talking to Derek Watt earlier and wondering if they were going to bring in any older guys because it's crazy. It's unique to be the second (longest tenured). Having played last year, coming in, it was a quick turnaround after signing. Then it was going straight into the playbook. Last year was trying to think about what is the play. Now it's more about the fundamentals and why it works this way. Just deepening my understanding of the playbook and getting more out of it. So when I'm analyzing film, I can see why this is happening instead of just thinking about what is going to happen."
Check out the top moments of Austin Ekeler's impressive rookie season.