Plenty of folks think Mathews is prepped for a big 2012. (Getty Images)

It's pretty easy to call Chargers running back Ryan Mathews a disappointment. Drafted 12th overall in the 2010 NFL Draft (after the Bolts moved up to grab him), Mathews hasn't been the replacement for LaDainian Tomlinson that the Chargers expected and has played in "just" 26 games (with 22 starts) in his first two seasons.

Mathews has struggled with fumbles (10 in those games) and has averaged just 884 rushing yards in two seasons. But there were lots of signs late last year (we'll get to those in a second) that he could be prepped for a breakout. Those, plus a strong offseason, may be why Chargers coach Norv Turner believes good things are ahead for Mathews.

“I personally think he’s ready to take that next step,” Turner told Michael Gehlken of the San Diego Union-Tribune. "That means, to me, the production goes way up, and he’s more of the guy that is on the field most of the time. I think he’s grown a lot in terms of understanding his responsibility when the ball is in his hand."

OK, so about those indications that Mathews could be ready to have a big year. Down the stretch in 2011, Mathews was a beast, rushing for 511 yards and a 5.55 yards-per-carry average in the final five games of the season. He also caught 15 passes in that stretch (for 76 yards) and scored three touchdowns.

In the 2011 season, Mathews averaged just 16 carries a game and still managed 78 yards per game. With the departure of Mike Tolbert to Carolina as a free agent, Mathews stands to see a ton more carries. 

The only real knocks on Mathews are his durability and fumblitis and, according to his workout partner and fullback Jacob Hester, he's spent the offseason getting jacked.

"You should see him with his shirt off," Hester said. "He looks like Arnold back in the day. We’ve been pushing each other. Shoot, I’ve tried to kill him a couple times. He’s held with it. He’s gone every step with me. I can’t stress how hard he’s been working. I expect him to be great. I really do."

As for his handle, Gehlkin reports that Mathews has spent the offseason carrying a football around, an indication that he's aware that he has to improve his ball security. Also interesting: Mathews is open and aware that he's been a disappointment.

"You just know you’re letting guys down,” Mathews said. "Guys are looking at you and saying, 'Come on.' It’s hard, man. You got to live with yourself the next couple weeks or days just thinking about it. 'They did it. Why couldn’t I?' I didn’t have the offseason workout like I’ve had this year. I really didn’t know what to expect. This year, it’s going to be a lot different."

If Mathews is right, it could also be different for the Chargers, who've lost their stranglehold on the AFC West and haven't made the playoffs the past two seasons.

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