COSTA MESA, Calif. — Austin Ekeler is entrenched as the Los Angeles Chargers starting running back.
Yet, the competition to determine who will back him up remains wide open.
Joshua Kelley and Isaiah Spiller have shown improvement during training camp and the first two preseason games, while undrafted rookie Elijah Dotson is making a bid for a roster spot.
All three running backs will get one final chance to make their case during Friday’s preseason finale at San Francisco.
“I think that anyone on the active (roster) in the running back room, you’re going to want to utilize all of those different guys,” offensive coordinator Kellen Moore said. “We’ll just see how it all plays out. That will be through the season, I think, by game plan.”
The Chargers have been searching for a consistent backup for Ekeler since he became the starter in 2020. But there is some optimism that there might be a feasible plan this season.
Coach Brandon Staley has discussed emphasizing the running game more since the end of last season. He fired Joe Lombardi after two years as offensive coordinator and brought in Kellen Moore, who was Dallas’ coordinator for four seasons.
The Chargers were ninth in the league last season in total offense, but 30th in average rushing yards per game (89.6) and per carry (3.77). Lombardi also called runs on 35% of the plays, the second-lowest rate in the league.
By comparison, Dallas ran it on 47.7% of its plays last season, tied for 10th.
Moore has installed a running scheme geared toward running straight ahead rather than outside. The style has proved to be popular with everyone on the offense.
“We feel like we’re built for the downhill run game. When you’re downhill and you’re bringing it to the defense, it amps you up early and gets you going,” guard Zion Johnson said.
Kelley and Spiller also think the changes fit their style of running better. Kelley is averaging 4.8 yards per carry in the preseason, and seven of his 13 carries have gone for at least 5 yards.
“I think that really fits my style. One cut, just get downhill. A lot of our outside zone perimeter runs are just one cut. Just be decisive,” Kelley said. “I’ve seen some improvements out there. I’m just looking to build and improve continuously.”
Kelley is going into his fourth season and acknowledged that the first two years were difficult because of fumbles and struggling on special teams. He averaged 4.2 yards per carry last season but missed four games because of a knee injury.
Spiller, a fourth-round pick like Kelley, did not see the field much as a rookie last season. He was limited to six games because of injuries and the learning curve on special teams.
Spiller had only 18 carries for 41 yards last season. He is averaging 5.4 yards per carry in the preseason. It would have been more if a 71-yard touchdown run against the Rams wasn’t called back because of a holding penalty.
“Kellen’s offense is more toward (Texas A&M coach) Jimbo Fisher. A lot of pro style Lombardi’s was getting around the field. Moore’s offense is more in my style. I feel like I can do it all. Run you over, juke, or run past you. That’s what I’ve been trying to display.”
Dotson might have the most to prove in Friday’s final warmup game. He had 92 yards, including touchdown runs of 40 and 37 yards, in the Aug. 12 game against the Rams.
However, he had two drops on a potential game-winning drive in last Sunday’s loss against New Orleans.
While Moore still wants to hone things leading into the Sept. 10 opener against Miami, he said the running game is headed in the right direction.
“You certainly have certain concepts that you feel comfortable with, that are going to be our bread-and-butter concepts,” he said. “Now, as we start heading into the regular season, we start tightening it up, narrow our focus, we can grab from the different training camp concepts as the season goes.”