Manhattan — In the third quarter of last Saturday’s game against Texas, with No. 16 Kansas State clinging to a one-touchdown lead and 10 yards to go on third down, the ball went to 5-foot-7 John Hubert.
He churned his legs, pushing forward, tearing away from would-be tacklers and gutting out a path through about a half-dozen Longhorns for an 11-yard gain and a big first down.
Hubert only got 12 carries for 32 yards, including that one long run. Time after time, he was smashed for little or no gain. He did not amass much yardage but got enough when it mattered, helping the Wildcats to a 17-13 victory on the road.
“That kind of just epitomized our whole season and kind of John in himself, in just how he had to work for that first down,” wide receiver Curry Sexton said. “He probably should have been stopped four yards short, but he ended up getting the first down, and he’s been able to do that for us all year.”
Hubert wasn’t well known coming into the season, especially with high-profile transfer Bryce Brown arriving from Tennessee. But after Brown abruptly left the team earlier this season, it cleared the way for Hubert to take over as Kansas State’s top running back.
Even if he still doesn’t get the majority of the carries.
The pint-sized Hubert is second to quarterback Collin Klein in rushing, but he’s also second to wide receiver Chris Harper in yards receiving. His perceived overachievement is a big reason why the Wildcats (9-2), picked to finish eighth in the league, could still share the Big 12 title.
They’re off this week before finishing the regular season against Iowa State on Dec. 3.
“We had a lot of running backs here trying to work hard and all that stuff, but the thing that stuck out most with John was John kept on working, he kept on staying with it,” said linebacker Tre Walker. “Extra film, extra practice, running after practice holding the ball, switching hands, left and right. That’s what makes John such a special athlete and special player for our team.
“He just gives it everything he has and he holds onto what he believes in.”
Hubert averages 73.9 yards rushing, numbers that would be much more robust if Klein wasn’t sharing the carries in the Wildcats’ option-style offense. His teammates, though, are under no illusions about Hubert’s ability.
Cornerback Nigel Malone remembers with a smile the first time he went against Hubert in a padded practice. He got ready to tackle him, thinking he would light him up. Hubert collided with him with such force that Malone was turned sideways.
“He’s definitely deceiving with his strength,” Malone said.
Walker also recalled his initial encounter with Hubert. Trying to run a ropes drill at practice, Walker was becoming frustrated. Hubert told him he needed to pick up his feet, that he was being lazy. Walker questioned why a running back was telling him how to go through a linebackers drill.
“It made me mad at first,” Walker said, “but then I calmed down and I thought about it, and I was like, ‘He’s right.’”
Walker quickly realized the value in teammates — even ones who play different positions or on the opposite side of the ball — holding one another accountable.
“No matter what the position was, he checked it, and that’s what a leader does,” Walker said. “Right then I just knew that was somebody I wanted to follow after.”
Coach Bill Snyder, who tutored a similar running back in Darren Sproles, cites the leverage that Hubert has on bigger guys when asked what makes his physical style work given his small stature.
Walker mentions how smart Hubert is when it comes to finding holes in the defense, while center B.J. Finney said his running back’s success boils down to a simple intangible.
“He just has the tenacity to get the yards,” Finney said. “He’s not going to let anyone big or small get in his way of getting those yards, and that’s the kind of attitude you have to have to be that small and play in the Big 12. You’ve got to have one heck of a mindset, saying ‘I’m going to run you over to get these yards no matter what.’
“John’s a great guy, great teammate,” Finney said, “and I love blocking for him.”