KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Kareem Hunt’s excitement on draft night soared so how high he couldn’t remember who from the Kansas City Chiefs called him to tell him they selected him in the third round, his eyes watering from making his dream come true.
One day shy of the four-month anniversary of that moment, and Hunt finds himself realizing another dream. He’s the starting running back for the Chiefs entering the 2017 season. Now he must try not to make too much of another big moment in his life.
“Football is a game emotions,” Hunt said. “Pretty much you just got to be cool under pressure, be poised under pressure.”
The Chiefs’ medical staff believes returning starting running back Spencer Ware requires season-ending knee injury. That makes Hunt the next man up.
“You just got to be ready at any moment,” Hunt said.” All the guys are going to get reps and carries. We’ve got (Charcandrick) West and (C.J.) Spiller, great guys who’ve played a lot of football already. They’ve been helping me out, so I’m just ready to take on the challenge.”
So much of playing running back goes behind running with the football. Andy Reid’s West Coast offense places many burdens on running backs in the route running, pass protection and other areas of the offense.
“We put a lot on their shoulders so they have to be able to handle that all,” said quarterback Alex Smith. “I think that is the biggest thing for a young back is being able to handle all of those things mentally.”
Smith believes that Hunt can handle the responsibilities.
“I think everybody is confident with him back there,” Smith said.
Reid said Hunt showed significant progress during training camp in St. Joseph in pass protection.
“That last week, maybe a week and a half that we were up in St. Joe that I thought he was really getting a pretty good grasp of it,” Reid said. “Then he’s had a couple of pick ups in this game which kind of proved that.”
The challenge, Reid said, comes Sept. 7 when the Chiefs open the season at New England.
“These are teams that are being fairly vanilla right now,” Reid said of the preseason competition. “You’re going to see it first hand once we start getting into the season with teams being a little bit more creative.”
Spiller said Hunt impressed him all the way through training camp as well as in Friday night’s preseason game.
“He has done a tremendous job to be a young guy to play the way he did against a great defense like Seattle this past week.”
Hunt said he felt the Seattle game proved a turning point with the pro game slowing down for him.
“That was a good defense we played so they played really hard and fast,” Hunt said. “I just noticed that I’m really starting to be able to recognize defenses more and seeing the fronts.”
An injury created an opportunity for Hunt during his freshman season at Toledo in 2013. Senior running back David Fluellen suffered an ankle injury in October. Fluellen tallied 1,121 yards in that injury-shortened season with a gaudy 6.7 yards per carry.
“I was kind of nervous,” Hunt said of entering the starting lineup as a freshman. “I just had to make sure that I took it play-by-play and not looking forward and try to do everything at once.”
The Rockets didn’t skip a beat with Hunt in the backfield. The true freshman topped the 100-yard mark five times in the team’s last six games of the season. He rushed for 866 yards and six touchdowns, averaging 6.3 yards per carry.
Once again, Hunt gets his opportunity in his first year in a new environment.
“We got a challenge and we all just want to help out and don’t want to miss a step, miss a beat off this,” Hunt said. “We’ve just got to come prepared and ready to work every day.”
Hunt quickly achieved his dream of starting in the NFL but hopes to apply the lessons learned from Ware and others in the running back room.
“It’s not the way I wanted it to happen but now it’s my time to step up and fill some big shoes,” Hunt said.
The normally energetic Hunt is trying to heed the advice of running backs coach Eric Bieniemy and mentors including Ware and Spiller. They tell him to set aside the hype and play his game.
“I’m just going to not make it bigger than what it is,” Hunt said. “I’m just going to take it play-by-play and not try to do too much or just go out of my element.”