During OTAs in 2017, a player on the field, who wore a single-digit jersey, stood out because of the plays he made on the field at Chargers Park. In the NFL, it is rare for a single-digit jersey to turn into a double-digit one. Number three didn't care. He did everything that was asked of him from the coaches.
That particular number three is still on the Chargers roster. He kept the number three and added a zero to the jersey. Yes, running back Austin Ekeler was one of the lucky few who made the roster as an undrafted free agent and got a chance to electrify the crowd with his air guitar celebration.
"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."
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Ekeler remembers that during OTAs he made numerous mistakes and would take notes after practice. He knew he had to correct them if he had any chance of making the 53-man roster. During the time off between mini camp and training camp, Ekeler recalled his best friend giving him a play that he would run until he memorized it.
The coaches took notice. He was able to do everything on the offensive side of the ball and even help on special teams, which is a big plus for an undrafted free agent trying to make the squad. There were six running backs in training camp, and Ekeler was the only back to make it out of camp along with Melvin Gordon and Branden Oliver.
"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."
It is no secret that with everything going on in the country, it will be harder for an undrafted free agent to make the team.
Right now, players are having Zoom meetings and workouts, which is better than nothing, but it isn't the same. The players should be in OTAs this week, and the younger players should be making their mistakes in front of their coaches and teammates like Ekeler.
Instead, they will most likely get virtual OTAs and minicamp to show what they have in training camp.
"They're gonna go in there, and they're gonna be smacked with all this information," explained the running back. "The mental game right now, in Zoom meetings, it's nowhere near seeing it actually on the field, 100 percent full speed. You're at a different level. You don't get to see this bird's eye view of the entire field. You (have) the point of view that's actually in the action, and things are moving around. So, these guys are missing out on some live reps that are so crucial for your development in this game."
There are officially 17 undrafted rookies on the Bolts squad right now. They range from the National Champion LSU Tigers to the University of Texas at San Antonio. They are all where Ekeler was in 2017, so he feels a sense of responsibility to help them learn.
"I dropped into their Zoom meeting, and I was telling them straight up how I did it, and about my mindset going through this and how (they) have to take that even further, because they don't have OTAs," he said. "I was telling them, 'Look, if you guys got a field or whatever, you need to be doing these (reps) on your own.' I repeated myself five times. 'You have to be studying. When you get bored, you've got to study more. You've got to get on the field, you've got to actually go out there and go through the motions because if you don't, you're going to be so far behind, you're going to look like you're just terrible.' Once you get past the mental barrier and you understand the game, you can actually just relax and play. And that's what allows you to be more successful."
The former Western Colorado running back received a four-year extension in the offseason, and with the departure of Melvin Gordon will be looked at as a leader in not only the running backs room but locker room as well.
"I feel like I just got in the league, but now I'm the oldest guy in the room," stated Ekeler.
He, at 25-years old, is now the oldest back. He stated numerous times on Wednesday that he needs to step up as a leader and help guys understand what they see on film or when they are out on the practice field.
"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 has a significant role to fill on the field because the team will have a new quarterback under center, and just like Rivers did the last three seasons, the new quarterback will most likely count on him to bail them out.
Now that Gordon is gone, the team drafted Joshua Kelley from UCLA in the fourth round to help Ekeler and the clubs other back Justin Jackson. Ridgley mentioned that the team would look at what each back does well and put them in a position to succeed.
Ekeler expressed his excitement about playing in SoFi Stadium this season. He mentioned that it is not ideal to have a crowd right now due to the coronavirus pandemic. But, he hopes the situation improves before the season starts. Ekeler said that until then, they would have to be their crowd and get the party started.
"We have an opportunity to come into this stadium and rock the place," explained Ekeler. "And have a culture and make it a great atmosphere that everyone loves to be in. So, first time I score a touchdown, I want everyone putting it up, and we're all jamming it out, and let's go, let's get this thing electrified."