Meet Kareem Hunt, the Best College Football Player You Don't Know

Adam Kramer@kegsneggsNational College Football Lead WriterMarch 25, 2015

Getty Images

The best player you've never heard ran for 271 yards and five touchdowns the last time he played in a regulation football game, although you probably didn't watch. He weighs 220 pounds and recently clocked a 4.49 40. He squats 500 pounds.

Despite missing nearly a quarter of the season, the best player you've never heard of—still only 19 years old and growing into a build that is approaching X-Men thresholds—rushed for more than 1,600 yards and averaged eight yards per carry last season. Only once in two years has he logged more than 10 carries and failed to hit 100 yards.

Oh, and despite all of this being news to you, he's still nowhere close to reaching his untapped potential. "I think there's still a lot out there for Kareem," Toledo head coach Matt Campbell said of his star.

The best player you've never heard of is Toledo running back Kareem Hunt, and right now he's shuffling between morning practice and the weight room. Right now, he's pushing to see precisely what else is out there, and he's not concerned with doing so in front of a crowd.

As he works his way from the practice field to grow an already robust frame, Hunt recites some of his favorite stiff arms and moves over the last few years as if they happened yesterday. It's as if they were scripted.

When the conversation turns to his recruitment, the glow disappears.

"You were the No. 118-ranked running back in your class," I say while mulling through recruiting rankings, only to hear his voice interject.

"You said No. 118," Hunt says. "In the country?"

Genuine surprise was trailed by laughter, but not the kind of laughter after a good joke. The kind of laughter that fills empty airwaves. His vocal response quickly gave way to silence, the kind of dead air that tells a story without saying anything at all.

For his entire football life, Kareem Hunt has essentially been glossed over. Operating in an NFL body scouts should be drooling over and posting outlier numbers at one of the most celebrated positions in sports, Hunt should be celebrated as a star.

At this point, however, the interest—or better yet, the criminal lack thereof— simply has not come, even as he inches closer toward his ceiling-less junior season.

"It's been like that my whole life," Hunt said. "It's motivation. I'm used to it."

Who Is Kareem Hunt?

Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

When he evaluates potential running back recruits these days, Campbell turns on the tape. Once he believes he knows a particular prospect, instead of watching more film of the player to confirm his diagnosis, Campbell throws on Hunt's high school footage and plays the footage side by side.

He's seen these plays. He remembers the speed, the power and the stiff arms. In fact, going back to his days as the team's offensive coordinator—before the 35-year-old became one of the hottest young coaches in the sport—Campbell saw plenty of the action live.

But that doesn't stop him from watching what Hunt did before he arrived. Even with only two years in the program, he is the barometer for excellence at the position.

"We knew we were getting a special player from day one, and I think he's been nothing short of that," Campbell said. "And the day he stepped on campus he arrived with something to prove."

Even before Campbell watched Hunt carry a football, he knew something many other coaches didn't realize in time: He was special.

During Hunt's sophomore year of high school, Campbell watched him run track. Despite towering over the other participants and looking out of place with his hulking frame, Campbell saw Hunt high-jump 6'5" and destroy his competition running the 100-meter dash.

"It wasn't even close," Campbell recalled of the race.

Before Campbell was named the head coach of Toledo, Hunt became one of his primary targets when he was an assistant. Recruiting the Cleveland area, Campbell built a relationship with the Willoughby South tailback and track star. When Campbell became the head coach, Tom Manning—the team's offensive line coach—stepped in and visited Hunt at his school with regularity.

"I'll be honest with you; we started recruiting him at a young age but really didn't know," Campbell said. "We thought he'd be at an Ohio State or one of the elite schools. That's why you recruit and that's why you try to develop a relationship. You never know who's going to fall through the cracks."

As Hunt and Campbell's relationship blossomed, his profile in the area began to grow. Still, overall, the buzz remained relatively contained. A lifelong Ohio State fan, Hunt had conversations with the university he grew up rooting for, although these talks never developed into anything more.

"I didn't get an offer because grades were close," Hunt said regarding Ohio State. "But I made it. I knew I was going to make it."

During his final two seasons in high school, Hunt ran for more than 5,000 yards and scored nearly 90 touchdowns. He averaged 11 yards per carry his senior year and set a Lake County record by running for 2,685 yards in a single season. As a result, Hunt was named First-Team All-State and was a finalist for "Mr. Football."

And yet, consistent with the theme, these accolades were greeted by crickets.

Deemed worthy as a 3-star prospect by recruiting outlets, the interest never came. The rush to secure his services never garnered momentum. Elite schools didn't beg for visits. Coaches didn't knock down his door and overwhelm his phone. There were conversations—like the ones with Ohio State—but they never got beyond surface level.

"I think they felt my high school program wasn't big enough," Hunt said. "I'm not sure. We were a Division I school and played some pretty good teams."

The knock on Hunt was his team's schedule and lack of competition, which scared some schools. The numbers that he posted, as absurd as they might have been, were viewed differently by many.

Eventually, as national signing day neared, some programs tried to squeeze their way back into the picture. Ohio State was not one of them, although the interest gave Hunt plenty to think about. It also gave Campbell and the rest of the Toledo staff an enormous sweat.

"It got tough at the end, but I knew they were the right school," Hunt said. "It was a great environment, there were great coaches in place, and I knew I had a chance to play early. Plus, I was only an hour and 40 minutes from my hometown."

Toledo had landed its 3-star back. Later that year, on October 19, 2013, to be exact, Hunt showcased a preview of things to come against Navy when seeing his first considerable action.

"It was cold," Hunt recalled of the game, the first time he logged more than five carries as a true freshman.

His first carry in the cold went for five. His next went for seven. Then 12, and then seven more. One quarter later, Hunt scampered 52 yards for a touchdown. Toledo beat Navy in double overtime behind Hunt's 127-yard performance and two scores.

The running back would follow up his big day with rushing totals of 114, 168, 186, 91 and 103 to close out the season. A star, so we thought, was born. Or at least it should have been.

The Star Too Bright Not to Shine

David Richard/Associated Press

No matter where he went as a child, Barry followed.

Growing up, Hunt moved a handful of times. Although the setting and cities changed, the decor on his wall did not. Hanging on his wall in his room—everywhere his travels took him—was a giant poster of Barry Sanders.

It was the symbol of his dreams and a man with more natural ability than anyone to ever play the position. A running back since the age of seven, Barry was the carrot dangling on the stick.

He was the one Hunt hoped to someday catch. And then, without warning or a crowd warranting the moment, he did.

On January 4, playing in the GoDaddy Bowl, Hunt rushed for 271 yards and five touchdowns in a 63-44 victory over Arkansas State. His fifth touchdown tied a bowl record held by the former Oklahoma State great.

"I idolized that man," Hunt said. "It really didn't hit me until about a week after and it didn't set in that the season was over."

A 271-yard performance should not (and cannot) be ignored. But because Hunt had his game right around the time Ohio State hysteria was setting in—and because he plays in the MAC and out of sight of the Power Five spotlight—his name simply didn't register with most.

"We know the more we continue to grow as a football program, and we've grown leaps and bounds over the past three years," Campbell said, "the more people will know who he is."

Had he not sat out three games last season due to an ankle injury, Hunt almost certainly would have eclipsed 2,000 yards. In fact, given his natural propensity to rack up 100 yards each game—and in most instances far more—he would have sailed past this mystical number and been on the heels of Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon's record-setting season.

Kareem Hunt 2014-2015 Game-by-Game
DateOpponentStatistics
8/30/2014New Hampshire20 Carries, 136 Yards, 2 TDs
9/6/2014Missouri15 Carries, 148 yards, 3 TDs
9/12/2014@Cincinnati12 Carries, 101 Yards, 1 TD
9/20/2014Ball State12 Carries, 142 Yards, 1 TD
9/27/2014Central MichiganDNP
10/4/2014@Western MichiganDNP
10/11/2014@Iowa StateDNP
10/25/2014Massachusetts26 Carries, 198 Yards, 1 TD
11/4/2014@Kent State18 Carries, 141 Yards, 0 TDs
11/11/2014@Northern Illinois18 Carries, 119 Yards, 0 TDs
11/19/2014Bowling Green30 Carries, 265 Yards, 2 TDs
11/28/2014@Eastern Michigan22 Carries, 110 Yards, 1 TD
1/4/2015Arkansas State (GoDaddy Bowl)32 Carries, 271 Yards, 5 TDs
ESPN.com

But those are simply numbers. They are validation and a way to grab your attention, but they don't do an adequate job of describing the player or what makes him unique.

The joy in watching Hunt exists not in the box score, but in the ways he makes tackling look like a deplorable chore. It is that rare combination of speed and power that is often talked about but rarely truly exhibited.

"He runs the ball maybe as hard as I've ever seen anyone run the football," Campbell said. "When you really sit and study him and watch his game, it's what the really special players in college football are doing right now. He's worth the price of admission."

Back to those stiff arms again, the place Hunt feels most comfortable. Off the top of his head when asked to pick his favorite stiff arm, he highlights plays against Missouri, Ball State and Northern Illinois. Cincinnati gets an honorable mention for a tackle-shedding run down the sideline.

"I remember them," he says, offering up far less ominous laughter than he did early on. He remembers everything.

From severely overlooked to severely under-looked, the running back from Ohio has found a home close to home. He has found a coach and program that recognized his talent well before anyone else. And despite the awkwardness of the journey and the lack of interest along the way, the match has worked out brilliantly thus far.

As Hunt transitions from his stiff-arm greatest hits to his dreams of the NFL—a dream he says he has had since he was born—he breezes past the possibility of reaching 2,000 yards. He doesn't avoid the possibility, and we do the math together. Had he stayed healthy last season, he would have been well over 2,100 yards.

"If I get there, I get there," he says.

MOBILE, AL - JANUARY 4: Running back Kareem Hunt #3 of the Toledo Rockets runs past defensive back Andrew Tryon #21 of the Arkansas State Red Wolves during on January 4, 2015 at Ladd-Peebles Stadium in Mobile, Alabama. The Toledo Rockets defeated the Arka
Michael Chang/Getty Images

Instead, he wants to talk about his offensive line, which is undergoing a reboot at this very moment. Across the line are new faces, one of the team's primary concerns now given the way this group performed over the past few years. This spring is all about settling in.

"I'm going to take them under my wing, coach them up and give them some experience," Hunt said. "This is the time of year where we gain our confidence."

Despite my desire to bring it back to him—to the best player you don't know—Hunt refuses to let that happen. When asked about his individual goals, he wastes little time responding.

"To help this team win a MAC championship," he says.

That doesn't help me help his cause. Here I am trying to tell you about this create-a-player, this 220-pound overlooked mold of speed and muscle on the verge of superstardom, and all he wants to do is talk about the team?

Perhaps that's where this comfort exists. Perhaps this is part of the problem in Hunt's inability to garner a more significant following—the kind of following he deserves. It's not in his nature to make it about himself, although thus far the plan has worked out brilliantly.

It's put him in a place where a 2,000-yard season seems reasonable. It's put him one step closer to his lifelong dream of playing in the NFL. It's put his name next to Barry Sanders, the idol hanging on his wall.

On second thought, so what if nobody notices?

So what if you leave this piece and never watch Kareem Hunt run through a defense or send a defender airborne courtesy of a devastating stiff arm? Perhaps he's better off that way.

"I'm just working to try and get better, and if people don't notice that's fine to me," the former No. 118-ranked running back in the nation said. "I just love playing the game and love when our team wins."

Adam Kramer is the College Football National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. Unless noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.

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