Huggins puts freshman year behind him

PISCATAWAY, N.J. -- Imagine being the best recruit to ever sign at a school. A school that has struggled at your particular position for years. A school so close to your hometown, the entire state has turned all its eyes to you to be some sort of savior sent from above.

Imagine dealing with all that at 18, the crossroads between being a kid and a grown-up.

It is safe to say nobody in the history of Rutgers dealt with the type of pressure running back Savon Huggins did last season. He came to the school as a five-star prospect, the consensus No. 1 player in the state of New Jersey, the answer to what has been missing since Ray Rice left town.

Huggins graced magazine covers and the front pages of newspapers, a phenomenon before he played a down. When he arrived on campus, he brushed aside suggestions that the pressure might be too great.

Then he started pressing once practice began, and never found a groove. He hurt his knee in early November, and missed the rest of the season. He never won the starting job.

"I know my mother told me when I came here, she was like, 'You realize you’re under a lot of pressure.' I was like, 'I’ll be fine.' Then I got here and realized, 'Woah. This is a lot,'" Huggins recalled. "It definitely is a learning experience, and something I will never take for granted. I’ll keep that for the rest of my life, to know what I have to do to get to where I have to get, and what I’ve been through. It wasn’t easy to go through what I went through, being hurt, all the pressure, and not doing what I’m expected to do."

Huggins ended the season with 146 yards on 56 carries and five touchdowns -- averaging a paltry 2.6 yards a carry. Every time he was asked about Huggins, former coach Greg Schiano said he just wanted his player to stop trying to do so much. As Huggins struggled, Jawan Jamison emerged as the freshman to watch, leading the team with 897 yards and nine touchdowns.

The players are now locked in a competition to win the starting running back job and help Rutgers improve its run game, which ranked near the bottom in the nation once again. There have no doubt been issues on the offensive line that have stunted the progress of the run game.

But there has not been a talent like Rice at the position since he left. Coach Kyle Flood has promised that both Jamison and Huggins will be used heavily, so it does not technically matter who wins the starting job.

During his most trying moments last season, Huggins said he relied on the support system around him. He never came into school believing himself to be the savior everyone expected, even though he admits he did not play relaxed on the field.

"First I had to prove myself to teammates," he said. "I never came in with that arrogance. I felt I had to go out there, have fun and contribute to my team. At the end of the day, regardless of who you are, you still have to be a team player. That’s what my approach was."

Huggins recognized where he struggled last season, and is intent on making everybody who placed such high expectations on him, believers once again.

"I never said I doubted myself," he said. "It was moreso I was thinking too much. I was getting caught up in hearing this and that. I would try to block it out, but I could hear it. I wasn’t playing relaxed. I was too tense. Now that I know the system and have a year under my belt, I feel more comfortable."