A lot is being placed on Austin Ekeler’s shoulders this week as Head Coach Anthony Lynn deemed Melvin Gordon “extremely doubtful” for Sunday night’s showdown with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
It’s a good thing Ekeler is as equipped as anyone to shoulder an additional load.
After all, he’s regarded as the single strongest player in the locker room.
Actually, regarded isn’t strong enough of a word.
He is absolutely, pound-for-pound, the strongest Charger.
“No doubt,” Head Coach Anthony Lynn said. “That’s a fact. It’s not an opinion, that’s a fact…. We go through the offseason program, these percentages and weights, we were very surprised how strong he was. I mean, technically, pound-for-pound, he’s the strongest guy on our team. That’s why you see him running through tackles. That’s why you see him creating yards after contact. He can do those types of things. He’s not a big back, but he can still do those types of things.”
Count Philip Rivers among those impressed by the 5-10, 200-pounder’s pure strength.
“Any time you’re in the weight room, he’s in there (and) you see it,” he said. “But especially in the offseason when guys are handling a little more weight. You see a big guy get off the bench, he grabs the same set of dumbbells and lays it down. He’s strong. He’s balanced. You see how low he is when he’s cutting it in and out of holes. I think sometimes you can see it from afar and say (he’s a) scat back and all those things, but he’s just so powerful and tough to bring down. Very seldom does the first guy get him. I know he’ll be excited (for a bigger role). Obviously, everybody wants an opportunity, but not in this fashion. But we have a lot of faith in him.”
It’s easy to see why as the proof is in the pudding.
Ekeler has turned heads during a standout sophomore campaign, toting the rock 70 times for 409 yards and one touchdown. He’s averaging an impressive 5.8 yards per carry, which ranks second in the NFL behind only Green Bay’s Aaron Jones. Meanwhile, he has the highest percentage of any player in the league for runs going at least 10 yards with 22.9.
In addition, Ekeler has been dangerous as a receiver, ranking third on the team with 32 catches for 453 yards and four touchdowns.
A major reason for his success is his brute strength.
Ekeler looks and plays the part of a scat back, but he’s also so much more. Thus, often times a defense lays into him, thinking for sure they’ll knock him down when instead, they’re the ones getting knocked back.
“I have a small frame, so people think, ‘Oh man, I’m going to light this kid up,’” Ekeler said. “I just take pride in the way my strength allows me to (stay on my feet). I can take hits for sure. People are bouncing off of me. But I got popped a couple times. Shoot, you see people pick me up off the ground. I’m still light, but as far as DBs coming and trying to take a hit on me, usually I can absorb some of those and keep going. Just the pride that I’ve taken in my strength has helped me out there (on the field).”
The Bolts hope it also helps him out Sunday night in Pittsburgh.
Ekeler already had to shoulder the load once this season after Gordon missed the Week 7 game against the Tennessee Titans in London with a hamstring injury. However, all eyes from coast to coast will tune in to see whether he is up to the task as the Bolts visit the Steelers in primetime.
It’s only naturally for NFL fans to doubt Ekeler can rise to the occasion. After all, he’s a former undrafted free agent only his second season being tasked to lead the charge in replacing an elite back in Gordon.
However, as those in the past have learned, those who doubt Ekeler tend to end up looking foolish.
Just like those who doubted he’d be able to lift as much as he did the first time he walked into the Chargers’ weight room.
“The first summer I came here (I surprised people),” he recalled. “I was pretty strong back in college (but) no one knew me here coming in. You start working out and people were like, ‘Oh shoot, this guy, what the heck?’ People don’t even expect it. I have a bunch of weight on the bar and they’re like, ‘Oh my, he’s actually moving that.’ It’s just how it’s been.”
More importantly, few, if anyone, gave the Western State product any chance of making the 53-man roster after he joined the Chargers as a rookie free agent. He flashed throughout last year’s offseason program and training camp, yet it wasn’t until a solid showing in the final preseason game that he locked down a roster spot.
“He was on the roster bubble, absolutely, (and) it was that game that he made the team,” Lynn recalled. “(In) San Francisco, the last pre-season game (he showed) his consistency. Every time he went in the game, the chains moved. (You thought there’s) got to be something to this. We kept him on the team (and) he became a really good special teams player. Every time we put him in there last week, he moved the sticks. Very consistent in what he does.”
That consistency also extends to how he prepares.
While he knows he’s in line for more work on Sunday, he’s not going about the week any different as he’s always practiced as if he’s the starter.
“I (always) prepare like I’m going to be starting because I never know what plays I’m going to be getting in or if I’m going to get in at all,” he said. “Mel (Melvin Gordon) unfortunate for him, man. I feel bad just because it’s so unlucky getting leg whipped like that. Now I’m the next guy up. It’s some big shoes to fill. Mel, he’s a Pro Bowl guy. He was having a great season, so (I’ve) got to step up and so do all of us. Justin (Jackson) and Detrez (Newsome) as well.… It’s an opportunity (for us), but every week’s a big opportunity. Every Sunday (that) we put on the pads is another opportunity to make plays and show what you’re made of. My role has just changed a little bit. It’s usually on special teams and a little bit of offense, but now it’s shifting more towards the offense. (I) absolutely have the opportunity just as well as everyone else.”