If there’s anyone on the Los Angeles Chargers’ roster who can relate to Brandon Staley’s meteoric rise from unknown Division-III defensive coordinator to NFL head coach, it’s Austin Ekeler … if Ekeler knew Staley existed.
Without a single FBS or FCS scholarship offer after a standout high school career in Eaton, Colorado, Austin Ekeler landed at Western Colorado, a Division-II university in Gunnison, a mountain town known more for its proximity to Crested Butte and other popular tourist destinations than anything else, especially college football. Four years later, he scored a touchdown on his first NFL carry.
Ekeler has since grown into a household name and enters his fifth season with 26 career touchdowns and nearly 4,000 total yards. And his fifth season will begin the same as his first season did: with a first-year, first-time NFL head coach.
In January, the Chargers hired Staley to replace Anthony Lynn. While the cross-town jump from Los Angeles Rams’ defensive coordinator to Chargers’ head coach wasn’t surprising, the jump from Division-III defensive coordinator to NFL head coach in five years was incomprehensible.
Staley played at Dayton and has three Division-I stops on his résumé – Northern Illinois (2006-08) and Tennessee (2012) as a graduate assistant and James Madison (2014) as defensive coordinator – but was defensive coordinator at D-III John Carroll in 2015 and 2016. He landed on the Chicago Bears’ staff a year later, spent the 2019 season with the Denver Broncos, and was hired as Sean McVay’s defensive coordinator in 2020.
“It doesn’t make sense to a lot of people. I know that, but every day that I was coaching at John Carroll, James Madison, Hutchinson Junior College, I was envisioning going against Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers or Russell Wilson,” Staley said in January. “I was studying the NFL and trying to become as good as I could be to compete in this league, because that was always a dream of mine, and I think that those experiences have uniquely shaped me.”
Staley’s first phone call after accepting the Chargers’ job was to his wife, Amy. His second call went to Justin Herbert, and one of the next calls went to Ekeler, who almost didn’t answer the phone and “had to look up who this guy was.”
“I usually don’t answer random calls … at the time, I knew we hired a coach but I forgot. I was like ‘Who is it? Is this guy the coach?’ I didn’t realize it,” Ekeler said on the Unleashed podcast. “Then he started talking to me, and I was like ‘OK, this is our new head coach.’ ”
Ekeler joined Olivia Harlan Dekker and Speedy Morman on Unleashed to talk about his first call with Staley, how the Chargers are looking to improve in the AFC West, NFTs, and more. You can listen to the episode below (or on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and everywhere else):