June is here and you can feel the NFL season fast approaching. Training camps will soon open and that means position battles and players fighting for roster spots.
For the Los Angeles Chargers, one of the most intriguing position battles will be at the No. 2 running back position behind starter Melvin Gordon.
It’s clear that Gordon is going to be the team’s No. 1 back for years to come, but like just about every team in the league, having a rotation of talented, complementary backs is pretty much a must.
Last summer, undrafted rookie Austin Ekeler came out of nowhere, rising from the No. 6 running back on the depth chart to become the primary backup by the time the season opened. He leaped over experienced players such as Andre Williams, Kenjon Barner, Kenneth Farrow and Branden Oliver to do so.
But now, the Chargers have another running back who I see as almost a carbon copy of Ekeler in seventh-round pick Justin Jackson. But unlike Ekeler, who came from a Division II school, Jackson played in the Big 10 Conference and finished his career as the No. 11 leading rusher in NCAA history.
Jackson will come in with the experience of having played against some of the best schools in college such as Ohio State, Michigan and Wisconsin. But please don’t sell Ekeler short. Too many coaches, analysts, etc. have already done that.
Jackson had an extensive workload in college, carrying the ball 1,142 times in his career. Only five players in the history of college football had more rushing attempts.
Whether or not that added too much tread to the tires of Jackson remains to be seen, but he has the skills to succeed at the next level. He has a solid burst and quick feet to make sudden lateral movements with the ball in his hands. When watching him run, what pops out more than anything else is the fact that he runs much tougher than his size (6-0, 199 pounds) would suggest.
The Wildcats used Jackson in every situation, including short-yardage and goal-line plays. He took handoffs out of shotgun, single back sets and the I-formation, so he’s used to a wide variety of play calls.
He’ll have a good chance to land the No. 2 spot this summer.
In order to do so, he’ll have to outperform a very determined Ekeler, who was a Swiss Army knife of sorts for the Bolts last season. Ekeler had 260 yards rushing and averaged 5.5 yards per carry. But his strength was as a third-down back where he was terrific at catching the ball out of the backfield and even showed he could pick up the blitzer in pass protection.
Ekeler caught 27 passes for 279 yards and found the end zone three times as a receiver. Check out this place against the Jacksonville Jaguars from last season, a team that probably had the league’s best defense.
However, in speaking to Ricky Henne of the team’s official website last month, Ekeler knows he won’t be able to get by on the success of last season alone.
“You can never relax in this league! 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.”
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That is a great mindset for a young player to have and Ekeler is a guy with a terrific work ethic who takes nothing for granted. He will be ready to embrace the competition from Jackson this summer but when all is said and done, expect to see both of these guys make a difference for the Chargers this coming season.
The only other running backs currently on the roster are Russell Hansbrough and undrafted rookie Detrez Newsome (along with fullbacks Derek Watt and Anthony Manzo-Lewis). I feel both Ekeler and Jackson will easily make the 53-man roster and this season, the team will have an even more dynamic offensive backfield.
As for a prediction, at this time, I’m going to say Ekeler keeps this job despite a strong push from Jackson. When the season opens, I can see Jackson being used to spell Gordon and get the carries while Ekeler comes in on third downs and continues to chip in as a receiver out of the backfield and also return kicks on special teams.