Now you see me, now you don't: The Austin Ekeler experience

COSTA MESA, Calif. -- Austin Ekeler played college football at a higher elevation than anyone else, nearly 8,000 feet above sea level at Division II Western State Colorado University (now called Western Colorado University). He set school records running the football and in the weight room, dreaming of one day playing in the NFL.

Ekeler left college a semester early to focus on accomplishing that dream. He worked out with another future NFL star, Carolina Panthers playmaker Christian McCaffrey, finding that he could hold his own with one of the best backs in college football.

Per ESPN Stats & Information, Ekeler's 9.67 receiving yards after catch is No. 4 in the NFL. Ekeler said he's always had the ability to make defenders miss in space but has worked to improve that skill set every year.

"It is what's given me success," the Los Angeles Chargers' third-year running back said. "It's what has allowed a lot of skilled people to make it to this level, making people miss in space. But now it's, 'Can I do it at this level as well?'

"And it's different, too, because guys are more athletic across the board, from D-line, safeties, corners -- everyone. So now it's finding new ways (to make people miss). In the past few weeks you've seen it. I'm not making huge moves to get people off their mark. I'm a little smaller, a little more compact, so I can change directions a little faster than these linebackers can. So it's not flashy, but it's effective."

Ekeler's hard work has paid off. While Melvin Gordon has struggled in his return after holding out for two months, Ekeler has been the Chargers' most productive running back.

His 356 receiving yards top all running backs, and he has seven total touchdowns on the year. Ekeler's 49 receptions ties him for third in the NFL with Houston Texans receiver DeAndre Hopkins.

"He's so versatile," Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers said. "You could say he's a running back playing receiver, or you could say he's a receiver playing running back. I think he's that special and has that much ability. It can continue to be an asset for us moving forward."

As Rivers said, the Chargers use Ekeler more as a pass-catching weapon out of the backfield, which has proved effective.

Last week, Ekeler scored on a 41-yard reception on a stutter-and-go route lined up wide against Tennessee Titans linebacker Wesley Woodyard, with Rivers hitting him in stride late in the play.

He appeared to score the game-winning touchdown on an angle route for 16 yards on the final drive of a 23-20 loss to the Titans last week, but the call was later reversed by replay officials.

"I watched it over and over. It looked like he scored a touchdown to me," Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn said.

Lynn first noticed Ekeler's breakaway speed in 2017, when Ekeler was an undrafted rookie playing on special teams. Through his diligence and hard work, Ekeler has developed into one of the most electric backs in the league.

"It's evolved a lot since he's been here because his production keeps going up and we use him more as a wide receiver now," Lynn said. "When he's not the primary back, he has a versatile role where we can do that -- put him out there and he can run go-routes, stutter-go [routes], and get those matchups that we are looking for.

"Keenan Allen is a No. 1 guy, no doubt about it, but you get Austin Ekeler on a linebacker, that becomes a No. 1 target. He's quick, he's explosive. He has excellent hands."

Ekeler grew up in rural Easton, Colorado. He said he misses ice fishing at Blue Mesa Reservoir in his college town of Gunnison, Colorado, and dreams of one day owning a lake home in Nebraska after his playing days are over.

"I like fishing in general," Ekeler said. "But if you're on the river fly fishing you're constantly doing something. But with ice fishing, you're sitting on a bucket or a little chair, you have a heater in the tent, and you're just shooting the s--- and hanging out with your buddies.

"I just love the social aspect of (living on a lake). I always imagine having that home, bringing the family together and just enjoying life."

For now, Ekeler is focused on the present. The elusive, soon-to-be restricted free agent has raised eyebrows around the league with his emergence as a big-time playmaker this season.

"Obviously, I want to be the starter, but I don't need to be No. 1 on the depth chart -- that's not how I see it," Ekeler said. "I see it as I need to be making my plays when my time is called upon."

Along with hard work and confidence, a healthy competition with Gordon has made both of them better, according to the Wisconsin product.

"It's dope having Ekeler here because it pushes you," Gordon said. "He's a good player. It can also be frustrating because he's taking snaps away from you, and he does some things really, really well.

"There's things that I can do, but he probably does them better -- they're more confident with him doing it -- rather them putting me in there in a certain situation. So it's good and bad in a sense, but at the end of the day I feel like it makes me a better player, because I'm a competitor. And he'll tell you the same thing. He likes me being back there because I challenge him."

Gordon (3,071) and Ekeler (2,233) have the most combined total yards of any running back tandem in the NFL since 2017.

Lynn and offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt have to figure out how re-create the type of offensive balance the Chargers had last year that helped propel them to a 12-4 campaign.

The Chargers are averaging just 74 rushing yards a contest, No. 27 in the NFL. Since his return, Gordon has totaled 81 rushing yards on 36 carries for a 2.3 per carry average.

The Chargers are 0-3 since Gordon's re-joined the starting lineup.

"It's our fault," Whisenhunt said last week. "We're not blaming anybody for that. We have to try to do a better job being more efficient and effective running the football. It's not for lack of trying. It's more that we just haven't been successful. We haven't done it. We just haven't executed."