Nyheim Hines was the fastest running back at this year's NFL combine and may be the most explosive playmaker in this draft class. But growing up, he couldn't beat his own twin sister, Nyah, in a footrace.
"She was faster than me until I was about 11," Hines admits. "So I would win track meets for boys, then lose to my sister."
Nyah even beat her twin brother in a 100-meter dash while running barefoot (he was in track spikes) when they were about nine years old. "We started running, and at about 30 or 40 meters of the 100, she looked at me and waved and just pulled away," Hines recalls.
"I took that L on the chin. She still brags about it."
His sister has gone on to become a star sprinter and hurdler for NC State, but Nyheim did eventually grow faster than her. And just about everyone else. Hines ran a 4.38-second 40-yard dash at the combine, fastest among running backs and faster than all but two wide receivers.
He was slightly disappointed by the time. "In high school I ran a 4.32, so I wasn't too happy with 4.38," Hines says. "But No. 1 is No. 1."
Hines was a member of the Wolfpack's two-time ACC-winning 4x100-meter relay team when he wasn't part of a three-headed backfield that propelled NC State to a 9-4 record and Sun Bowl victory last year. He was a state track champion in high school. His career highlights are dotted with 50-plus-yard touchdowns on runs, receptions and kick returns, with Hines pulling away from defenders at the ends of the runs like he pulled away from all the (male) competitors at childhood track meets.
So does all that speed make Hines a...(warning: nasty scouting insult coming)...track guy?
"Oh gosh. I've been asked the track guy question so many times," Hines says. "It drives me crazy."
Track guy is a dreaded label for a running back or receiver prospect. It suggests he's a straight-line runner who won't take a hit and can't find a hole or run a route. The track guy label turns a great 40 and seasons of high-level competition in high school and college into negatives.
Hines' low yardage totals—he ran for just 1,400 career yards at NC State, adding 933 yards on 89 receptions and some return yardage—only make the label stickier. If you don't look carefully, you may think he spent his college career letting teammates Jaylen Samuels, Reggie Gallaspy II and (in past years) Matt Dayes do all the dirty work between the tackles while he waited to catch the defense napping and sprint past it.
Hines knows he gets asked the track guy question just to see how he will respond. His trainers even tease him with it if they sense he is letting up during a workout. But the label simply does not fit Hines at all.
"Anybody who watches the film can see I'm not a track guy," he says. "I'm physical. I played injured. When it's third down, I'm gonna go try to get that first down. I'm going to stop and cut back toward the middle. I'm gonna do stuff to get one extra yard."
Stereotypical track guys don't play through pain. But Hines played the second half of last season on a high ankle sprain he suffered against Notre Dame in late October. After being limited the following week against Clemson, he rushed for 110 yards and returned kickoffs against Boston College and 196 yards and two touchdowns against North Carolina.
It's not like Hines only recently started playing football, spurred into it by his speed. He started playing at age six. And he was a linebacker at the youth level. "I didn't want to play offense my first year," Hines recalls. "I liked defense. All I used to do was just hit people. I didn't wrap them up. I just laid people out."
He began his high school career on defense, too. He became a full-time running back as a junior, rushing for over 5,000 yards in his final two prep seasons. That same year is when he began running track, primarily to improve his football skills.
Colleges knew they wanted Hines, but they weren't sure which position the 190-ish-pound burner would play. Some saw a wide receiver. Others a running back. But many, including NC State, saw an all-purpose playmaker. "They told me that I would be an all-purpose guy like Percy Harvin or Tavon Austin," Hines said.
They also had a spot on the women's track and field team available for a certain hurdler. "I wanted to go to school with my sister."
Hines played that Harvin/Austin role for two seasons, lining up in the slot to run routes and end-arounds while also returning kicks. He estimates he caught 80 career passes from the slot, running a full wide receiver's route tree.
His role expanded in 2017, as he joined Samuels and Gallaspy in the ultimate mix-and-match backfield. Hines and Samuels lined up at so many positions that television announcers often got their names wrong. "They get our names and numbers confused," Hines says. "We were a 1 and a 7, so if you don't see the point on the 7 it looks like a 1."
That positional confusion continued through the combine, where Samuels worked out with both the running backs and tight ends while Hines joined Christian McCaffrey as the only players in combine history to perform in receiver, running back and kick return drills. The extra workload may have hurt Hines' shuttle times (he improved them at his pro day), and the all-purpose role may have limited his yardage totals. But the ability to play multiple roles will increase his NFL value in this era of running back committees and shotgun-based offenses.
"The game is changing," he says. "Those guys who can play in space and make people miss, the home run hitters like me and J-Sam [Samuels] are having an impact on the game. You saw what Alvin Kamara and McCaffrey did. You saw it in other running backs in the past like Brian Westbrook or Warrick Dunn.
"In the NFL, the guys who play in space like Kamara and McCaffrey don't need 25 carries, because they can get 25 touches every other way."
Once you locate Hines on the Wolfpack game film, it's easy to see he's no mere track guy. He possesses exceptional lateral quickness. He lowers his pads and plunges between the tackles in the red zone. He looks a little like Dion Lewis when he runs a wheel route from the slot. He even added punt gunning to his resume in 2017 as one more way to help both his team and NFL stock.
In other words, he is exactly the kind of all-purpose playmaker teams often overlook in the draft (see: Kamara) in their eagerness to select 25-carry workhorses. That 4.38 40 is just the cherry on top of a very impressive NFL portfolio. Which is why Hines takes as much pride in his versatility as his pure speed.
"That's why I think I'm the most explosive back in the class," he says. "I don't know if there are any wide receivers who caught 80 balls in the slot and run the complete route tree. Or returned kicks. Or returned punts. Or even was a gunner who was catching punts over their shoulders to pin opponents inside the 10.
"It makes me unlike any other back in this class."
Not bad for a guy who used to lose races to his twin sister and got mixed up among a crowd of playmakers in college. But Hines has always been the ultimate team player, whether he was sharing touches in the backfield, keeping the relay squad loose or teaming up with Nyah to dominate the schoolyard.
"Everybody knew us at our school and in our neighborhood," Hines recalls. "After we showed them what was up, no one really messed with us."
Once Hines shows the NFL what's up, he'll never have to answer the track guy question again.