SAN DIEGO (AP) — Mike Tolbert's teammates affectionately refer to him as a bowling ball.
It's a fitting description for the 5-foot-9, 243-pound fullback who's kept the San Diego Chargers' ground game rolling while rookie Ryan Mathews recovers from a high ankle sprain.
"I mean, a bowling ball always goes forward, never goes backward, right?" Tolbert said. "I like it."
Tolbert has carried 138 times for 609 yards and nine touchdowns, giving him plenty of chances to amuse his teammates with his end zone dance as the Chargers have rebounded from their early season struggles.
There's a chance Tolbert could finish with 1,000 yards, depending on Mathews' health and how much Philip Rivers wings it in the final five games.
That would be quite an accomplishment for a guy who entered the NFL as a rookie free agent out of Coastal Carolina in 2008.
Tolbert admits he was steamed that he was passed over in the draft that year.
"I've always had confidence in my ability," he said. "I've always had confidence I can play football, no matter what level. When I got here and saw the people I was playing with, it was like, 'OK, I know I can play with these guys.' "
Tolbert has shown that the Chargers' offense is about more than just Rivers' gaudy passing stats. Coach Norv Turner strives for balance, and Tolbert has delivered it with a burst.
Mathews, the 12th pick overall in the draft, has been limited since he was hurt in the home opener in Week 2. Tolbert has taken the opportunity and excelled, particularly in the last two games. He ran 25 times for 111 yards and a touchdown in a 35-14 win against Denver, then had 103 yards and one TD on 26 carries in Sunday night's 36-14 win at Indianapolis. Coincidentally, Rivers threw for 233 and 185 yards in those games, his two lowest performances of the year.
Tolbert also had 100 yards and a score on 16 carries in a win against Arizona on Oct. 3. After Mathews was hurt on Sept. 19, Tolbert ran for 82 yards and two TDs in a win against Jacksonville.
Kris Dielman, the Chargers' hard-nosed left guard, has extra respect for Tolbert. Dielman also came into the NFL as an undrafted rookie, joining the Chargers in 2003 and developing into a well-paid Pro Bowler.
"It's great to see him reaping some of these benefits because he's working hard," Dielman said. "He plays hard, is a hard runner and he's a great teammate. It's good to see free agents who don't get a chance come in here and make their opportunity. They make their chance."
Dielman said Tolbert made his chance with a solid work ethic.
"It's great for him. I mean, this is a guy that everybody pretty much kind of counted out, and then we gave him an opportunity and now he's running with the best of them in the league," Dielman said. "It's hard to get 100 yards. And for him to be doing it the way he is, he's earning every yard. He's a bruiser when he runs. I love blocking for a guy like that. Everybody loves blocking for guys like that."
Tolbert had a solid career at Coastal Carolina, rushing for 748 yards and nine touchdowns as a senior to finish with 1,670 yards and 21 touchdowns.
Fullback Jacob Hester also is impressed with Tolbert. Hester came to San Diego at the same time as Tolbert but in a much different way. The Chargers traded up in the third round of that year's draft to take Hester out of LSU.
"The thing with Mike, he had such a great college career and he's so athletic," Hester said. "I think he had a little bit of a chip on his shoulder that he felt like he got passed up by a lot of teams. I think so as well. I've seen his college highlight film and it's pretty unreal. Every time I watched it, it was a 200-yard game.
"I think people just see him as a bowling ball, and they don't see how athletic he really is," Hester said.
Tolbert has had three significant fumbles this year, including at the Oakland 1-yard line early in a 35-27 loss to the Raiders on Oct. 10. He seems to have cured himself of the bad habit. Despite bruising his right hand against the Colts, he intends to play against the Raiders Sunday as the Chargers (6-5) try to win their fifth straight game.
Even when Mathews returns, Tolbert will get his share of carries.
"I'm whatever Norv Turner wants me to be on Sunday," Tolbert said. "Whether it be on special teams or fullback if Jacob's not in at the time, or Ryan's down, as the case has been, I'm ready to go wherever, whenever, just to help the Chargers win."
While Tolbert's not a pure fullback, Turner said he is a complete player.
"Obviously the last two weeks, he's been kind of where we start," Turner said. "He's pounding it and our offensive line, I think they're enjoying it."
Left tackle Marcus McNeill likes getting Tolbert to the end zone to watch him dance.
"Best in the league," McNeill said. "It was the dougie, but then he turned it into the flex. You've got to get up on your dance lingo to kind of know what I'm talking about. It's kind of like taking the mashed potato to the funky chicken.
"We're going to keep him coming," McNeill said. "Our team has the No. 1 offense, No. 1 defense, No. 1 handslaps, No. 1 touchdown dance. All categories."
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.