Kendall Hunter doesn't talk much, but he was talking before Saturday's game against Washington State. Even if his words were brief and quiet as usual.
"I'm ready, I'm ready," he kept telling his position coach.
If only Washington State, warming up across the field at Boone Pickens Stadium, knew just how ready Oklahoma State's running back really was. Hobbled by an ankle injury in 2009, Hunter missed five games and managed just 382 yards while attempting to play through the injury for most of the season.
His first carry went for 17 yards, his day developed into a 257-yard season debut, and now Hunter needs only 126 yards to surpass his output in all of 2009. After one week of football, he's the nation's leading rusher.
"Above average? Would that work?" said Oklahoma State offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen, describing Hunter's day. "He is the fifth-best back in the Big 12, right? Nah, he's obviously pretty good. Heck, you know, it’s all about what you do for me lately. I understand how the whole thing works. He was pretty good two years ago, he’s the type of kid who’s not going to sit there and pout and feel sorry for himself. He’s going to be motivated by things some people won’t be motivated by."
Hunter had to sit and watch while his teammate, Keith Toston, took his spot and rushed for 1,200 yards in one of the most anticipated seasons in school history. Hunter got just one carry while Texas beat the Cowboys 41-14 in Stillwater. Hunter might not say last season's frustrations weighed on him or were on his mind, but he ran like it in his triumphant return to the field for his senior season.
"As the game went on, I kept asking him if he was tired and he kept saying, 'I just want to keep playing,' said Robert Gillespie, Oklahoma State's running backs coach. "He wanted to get out there so bad and just have fun. It was taken away from him last year, so this whole offseason he’s been working to get stronger, faster and smarter to become a better player."
Gillespie came to Oklahoma State before 2009, excited to coach an All-American coming off a 1,555-yard season, after three years coaching backs at South Carolina. Gillespie was disappointed Hunter didn't spend the season as his featured back, but saw the work he put in despite the injury. Saturday night was a long time coming.
Gillespie says Holgorsen's offense, implemented during spring and preseason camp, should fit Hunter perfectly and set him up for success at the next level. Scouts have seen Hunter -- a "strange combination of quick, fast and powerful," Holgorsen says -- run around and over defenders. This year, he'll have more chances to show he won't allow defenders to return the favor in pass protection.
"The film don’t lie, and the tape don’t lie," Holgorsen said. "Hopefully we can win some games and he gets on TV and everybody can see what the kid’s capable of, because he’s the best one I’ve been around."
Oklahoma State's new Air Raid offense figured to be pass-happy as the name suggests, with Hunter getting plenty of receptions as the team's obvious best offensive talent. He carried the ball 21 times against Washington State, amassing an outlandish 12.2 yards per carry, but sat for much of the 65-17 blowout's second half. The Cowboys threw Hunter's way about four times, Holgorsen estimated, but failed to establish the screen game or short passing game. Hunter finished with three catches for minus-4 yards. So instead, they took the simpler route to getting their playmaker the ball: handing it to him.
"We’re going to face some pretty good teams, I’m not oblivious to that. Some pretty good defenses out there with the likes of Texas, Oklahoma, Texas A&M, Nebraska and Texas Tech that are going to have something to say about it. Everybody’s going to try to stop the run," Holgorsen said. "We're going to have to be able to execute that stuff to take some pressure off the running game. But that’s why I’m here, that’s why I’ve been hired."
Holgorsen knew the offense wouldn't be perfect on opening night. Far from it, he expected. He estimates it took two years before he got it to look "decent" at Texas Tech.
"Luckily we've got a guy like him," Holgorsen said. "We can hand it to him and he can make us all look good."
They'll do that plenty this year, and Hunter will keep making his offense look good with many more runs like he broke off against the Cougars. He finished with six runs of longer than 15 yards, including a 66-yarder and a 39-yarder for one of his four touchdowns.
"It's his time; he went through a lot last year," Gillespie said. "And he’s hungry."