His name might be new to you, and it’s possible NFL scouts want to keep it that way, but Western State Colorado University running back Austin Ekeler is a name you need to know. Still the best-kept secret in the 2017 NFL Draft, Ekeler’s underground legend grows every step of the way.
At Colorado’s Pro Day, where he went after the CU prospects with another group of local small school players, he was approached by a fellow NFL hopeful who told him, “You don’t know me, but I’m the guy who you rolled over on your back.”
Another told him, “I hate you, I got benched because I missed too many tackles on you.”
Scouts have told him they’ve delayed flights to see him. His 4.3 40-yard dash, 40.5 inch vertical, and 129-inch broad jump are all secrets in NFL circles that no one wants to get out. All those would have been NFL Combine bests or top three scores at his position had he been invited.
One AFC East team worked him out privately and had him do his bench press—there was no time for the bench at CU’s pro day as scouts needed to move things along. When he put up 21 and asked if they’d share that information with other teams, the response was a prompt, “Heck no! We want you.”
At 5-foot-9 and 196-pounds Ekeler has been overlooked since his high school days in Eaton, Colorado where he tore up the scene to the tune of 2,300 yards and 43 touchdowns his senior season and still didn’t receive any Division-I offers. Now the NFL is happy to keep it that way, with everyone hoping the kid stays hidden until the drafts last day on April 29th when their team can be the one to pick him. It might not be so easy.
After leading all of Division-II in rushing yards per game his senior season, leading the nation in points per game (in all divisions) as a junior, and being a finalist for the Harlon Hill Trophy (DII’s Heisman) both his junior and senior seasons, Ekeler first made a big impression at the Landow Performance Mock Combine event in February. Christian McCaffrey was also there, working out and performing among others. Since then, he’s become a name to know in the underground draft world, as regional scouts will pound the table to take the guy late in the draft or make him a priority come the undrafted period.
Ekeler has been told that he’s the top target in his region by some regional scouts, and while over 20 teams have done their due diligence on the tantalizing prospect, there are seven or eight who are highly interested.
Generating that kind of buzz isn’t easy to do coming from DII, and even more so when you’re at Western State, a remote but beautiful campus that isn’t known for football, at least not recently. Before Austin in fact, one of the few claims to fame that the Mountaineers football program could make was playing all home games in the football stadium at the highest elevation in the world (the Mountaineer Bowl is at 7,769 feet of elevation). None of that mattered to Ekeler, as that was the only school willing to give him a shot at the position he loves, running back. He’s repaid the program in spades.
Shortly after arriving on campus, Ekeler won the starting job, and after a poor first performance, it was on.
“Coming in as a freshman into Western State I really didn’t have the NFL on my mind at all,” recounted the RB. “I was coming in, and I was just trying to start. There were nine guys for one spot on the field, so it was really competitive, and I ended up starting. The first game we played against West Texas A&M, I ran for 10 yards on 10 carries. I thought I was the worst football player in the world, I was like, ‘This is not for me, I don’t know if I can do this.’ The next game I started a streak of eight games with 100 yards or more, so I got the jitters out.”
After unleashing two phenomenal seasons as an underclassman, racking up 2,725 rushing yards and 21 touchdowns in 20 games, Ekeler began to think more could be possible, beyond just abusing RMAC defenses. But No. 31 understood that he had to do one thing to realize his aspirations of pro football: “I had to dominate to get noticed.”
Luckily, he had support up in Gunnison from coach Jas Bains who’d seen another dominant back make the jump from the RMAC’s elite to the NFL, Danny Woodhead, who he coached at Chadron State.
“Junior year is when I realized I had a legitimate chance,” explains the all-time Western State rushing leader and holder of many school records. “I had a great junior year I was a candidate for the Harlon Hill my junior and senior year. You know, coach Bains always talks about Danny because he was over there when he was at Chadron State, and he says, ‘You remind me a lot of him, you know.’ That boosted my confidence too, and it’s crazy when I think about him because he won the Harlon Hill two times his junior year and senior year and wasn’t drafted. He was determined the best player in DII for two years and still went undrafted.”
Junior year is when Coach Bains began to get contacted by NFL scouts about his talented running back and by his senior year, they were talking directly to Ekeler. Now Ekeler finds himself in a similar position to Woodhead’s, having dominated the RMAC and all of Division-II for the entirety of his four seasons, racking up 7,092 all-purpose yards in his career and 63 touchdowns in 40 career games, but still only on the cusp of an NFL draft selection.
“From scouts, those core teams I was telling you about, those seven, the regional guys are really pushing to draft me,” explained Austin. “I’m their guy in this region, so it comes down to what the team needs and how much say that scout has in the meeting room. So it comes down to team needs and what that scout has to say about me. I think I’m right on the fence between a lower-round draft pick or being an undrafted free agent. It’s pretty close; it just depends on which team is really in need and really wants to push for running backs.”
Ultimately Ekeler isn’t bothered by being drafted or undrafted, proving himself is nothing new.
“It puts me in a position where if I don’t get drafted I can pick a team where I fit best… When you’re seventh to undrafted your signing bonus isn’t much different. At this point, I just want to be on the right team.”
Austin stands out as a powerful runner despite his size. He runs low to the ground and relishes contact. He’s also extremely creative and elusive in space, using that 4.3 speed to his advantage. On top of all that, he’s developing an arsenal as a route runner and receiver, a role in which he was used in at times in college but will have to do more of in the pros.
“As far as my strengths, I’d say definitely catching the ball out of the backfield,” assessed Ekeler giving a self-scouting report. “Running the ball off tackle, outside-zone even inside zone because that’s all we did at Western. I definitely have experience with zone schemes. Speed and strength, just come watch me in the weight room and you’ll definitely see strength’s there. Speed, like you said, I ran a high 4.3 to a mid 4.4, so speed’s not even a concern. Mainly catching the ball out of the backfield and I’m a creative runner in space.”
In a league that values receiving backs and speed more and more, while also seeing a bevy of talents that fit that mold in this class like McCaffrey or Curtis Samuel who play at a similar size and weight to Ekeler, he has a role he fits in the NFL. A path Woodhead— who’s almost the same exact size as Ekeler—has paved for him, already coming out the RMAC.
“Really it’s just the schools; those guys are all at big name schools so when you’re playing at Division-I and you show out, you just need one year at Division-I, and you can go top three. It’s just from where you come from and where you’ve been. Connections get you places, and my connections have taken me a different path from them.”
Ekeler certainly stands out when you talk to him; he possesses a grounded confidence in his skills that’s contagious. He’s also engaging and intelligent, something that NFL teams have taken notice of and apparent in his two First-Team Academic All-American awards. He’s also a rootless competitor, something that he talks about and is easy to notice
Another underground legend about Ekeler is that he got in trouble for lifting weights too often as a freshman as he and a group of teammates were committed to grinding until they could be the best that they could be.
He might not get drafted, and it might even take him a season or two of practice squad time before he gets his shot, but Austin Ekeler is an NFL talent, there’s no question about that. When he does get his shot, watch out, the legend might just rise from the underground to the mainstream.