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Derrick Foster relying on Austin Ekeler to help position young players for success

Foster noted that both Kelley and Spiller have taken steps forward this offseason.

Los Angeles Chargers Training Camp Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

Chargers running back coach Derrick Foster comes from a small rural town many people probably have never heard of. He played college football at Division II Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri before getting his coaching start at Valdosta State University.

While his football journey ended short of the NFL, Foster still feels like a kindred spirit alongside Austin Ekeler who knows a thing or two about coming out of a small town (Eaton, Colorado) before playing football at small school (Western State) that even the biggest college football die-hards aren’t aware of.

But as destiny would have it, each individual has found themselves as a member of the Los Angeles Chargers. Now, entering another huge year with sky-high expectations for the franchise, Foster and Ekeler are working hand-in-hand to put the Chargers backfield in the best position possible after a few underwhelming years as a group.

In a recent interview with Chargers team reporter Eric Smith, Foster discussed just how helpful it’s been having not only a star player in the position room, but a guy who has overcame the odds and now has an inspiring behind his journey in the NFL.

“(Austin Ekeler’s) story is an incredible story that he can tell to anybody once the game is done for,” said Foster. “He came from a Division 2 school, him and I kind of share that relationship there like, ‘We’re both small town, small school guys.’ When we get in training camp, I have him talk to the rookies about his process and how he made the team, which was solely based off special teams.”

The praise didn’t stop there, however.

“I’ll tell you, I can’t get enough of him. He’s the leader and he leads by example and that’s the biggest thing. He and I talk about it all the time, his mental mindset and how he approaches things is what I appreciate the most.”

As much as Foster could gush and gush about Ekeler, he still had some thoughts on other backs, as well. When asked about Joshua Kelley, Foster stated that he believes the fourth-year back is ready for another leap forward in his development.

“I can see different changes in him from Year 1 when I got here to now. Even in our group meetings now, a question is asked and JK is on it. He has the answer whereas in the past, he may have been a little bit hesitant to give that answer. I think the game is slowing down for him and he’s recognizing where he needs to improve at as well. He’s a guy who takes a lot of pride in his work off the field, too, in terms of his work ethic. I think that can’t go unnoticed like when he made the transition in his third year in his weight and he got stronger and things of that nature. He takes pride in that and knowing what to do.”

“To answer your question, I definitely do think that he’s taking the steps in the right direction to get over that, to take it to another level. I think we’ll get an opportunity to really witness that as he continues to grow in his role.”

As for second-year back Isaiah Spiller, Foster admitted he did some extra digging to make sure the “baby-faced” youngster is as ready as possible to make a bigger impact during his sophomore campaign.

When I first met this guy he had that baby face, no facial hair, he came into camp as the youngest player in the NFL at 20 years old. He’s one of the youngest players coming into the NFL. I know two of his former running back coaches. I called both of them and asked them about him and they both gave me their feedback on him.

“I think he’s taken a step in terms of his professionalism on how he’s going to approach day to day. When you’re a rookie you hear about it and they tell you about it, but you’ve never done it. Your nutrition routine, your weightlifting routine, your film study routine and things of that nature, what you are going to do with your free time. I think he’s starting to learn what to do with all that time and how to approach his day to day.”

Like any coach, Foster simply wants the running backs to be better than they were a year ago. He knows that’s a broad statement, but he truly believes if the group can come together and improve on the little things, the bigger goals (like yards per carry average and total touchdowns) will follow.

“Of course we want to be a 5.0 yards per carry team or score X number of touchdowns, but first we have to do the little things better than everybody. This game is about fundamentals and who can be more sound than the other person. The rest of it comes from what you’ve been doing in the weight room, with your nutrition with your body or who’s faster or stronger. But my goal is to develop strong habits on the field so we can finish those runs.”