I was on Niners Nation when the 49ers made the pick of Kendall Hunter, running back from Oklahoma State, in the 4th round of the draft last month. Up until that pick many had been lobbying for us to take Jacquizz Rodgers instead; I was one of those individuals. I had, and still do, buy into Rodgers game changing ability as a change of pace back.
That said, the 49ers decided to go with a player that could eventually turn into the heir apparent for Frank Gore. See, Rodgers was never going to be an every down back in the NFL. Instead, he would fill the roles of Darren Sproles and Reggie Bush. Two extremely talented, but physically limited players. Physically limited in the sense that they would never be able to be an every down grinder in the NFL.
Kendall Hunter's build alone, affords him this opportunity. Hindsight bias is in full affect here, but I believe it was the right pick for San Francisco to make. Today, I am going to take a look at a couple different scouting reports on Kendall Hunter, evaluate those reports and attempt to bring it together in projections of what we will see from Kendall Hunter in 2011 in particular and throughout his 49er career in general.
Positives: Very shifty, eludes tackles with ease... Solid bulk and strong frame... Runs very low to the ground, tough to bring down because he's seemingly always lower than the defender... Outstanding vision, finds holes immediately and knows where his blockers are at all times.
Plays up to competition, had 201 yards, 2 TD against a tough Nebraska defense in 2010... Excluding his injury plagued 2009 season, he has been very productive with over 3,100 rushing yards and 32 TD in his two full seasons ('08 and '10) as the starter at Oklahoma State... Has Ray Rice-like potential.
Weaknesses: Although stocky, he's still very small at just over 5'7... Doesn't break a ton of long runs, only had one run over 30 yards in 271 carries in 2010... Limited around the goal line because of his size, won't run through NFL defenders... Below average in pass protection, doesn't set his feet and gets run over... Missed most of the 2009 season with an ankle injury.
This scouting report did go onto to say that Hunter may not be an every down type of back in the NFL because of his relatively short frame, but I disagree with that. Hunter is a half of inch shorter than Maurice Jones-Drew and about an inch shorter than Ray Rice. Those two players combined for over 600 rushing attempts last season. It doesn't make much sense that in one breath they say Hunter won't be an every down back, but in the next breath compare him to Ray Rice.
I love the fact that Hunter runs really low to the ground, this makes it more difficult for opposing players to bring him down. Especially, considering Hunter keeps his legs moving extremely well. We saw a problem with Anthony Dixon hitting holes last season, he decided to dance a little too much for my taste. This shouldn't be a problem for Hunter, who hits holes at a rapidly alarming rate. More than one time I have seen Hunter pull a Frank Gore, hitting the hole hard and "hiding" behind a massive blocker; this makes him extremely dangerous.
I did watch that entire Nebraska-Oklahoma State game a couple of weeks ago,and it was a sight. Kendall Hunter ran through one of the best rush defenses in the NCAA. Considering that Nebraska gave up only 3.4 yards per rush against their Big 12 opponents, it is pretty remarkable that Hunter averaged 7.7 yards per rush and gained over 200 yards against them.
Kendall Hunter's one glowing weakness, is probably the same weakness for most running backs coming out of college; he isn't a great blocker. Most of the time college teams do not ask the running back to be a major part of the pass protection game. That said, Hunter looked especially lost at times in this aspect of the game. I saw him get run over, lose footing, and allow opposing defenders to get to Brandon Weeden on multiple occasions.
Few backs in this highly touted draft class were as productive as Kendall Hunter was through his career at Oklahoma State. During his two years as a full-time starter, he ran for well over 3,000 yards and racked up 32 touchdowns on the ground. What he lacks in size, he makes up for with excellent balance, quickness, and running instinct.
Vision, Instincts & Awareness
Kendall Hunter possesses terrific running instincts. He is very football-smart and has great vision to pick holes. Due to his small size and that vision, he navigates traffic very well, fitting through small creases. He does a very nice job finding cutback lanes in the open field.
Despite being undersized, Hunter has strong legs and hips which allow him to break tackles. He runs very hard for his diminutive stature and cannot be arm-tackled. In the hole, he is quick and shows good elusiveness. His low center of gravity makes him a tough guy to knock over and allows him to change speed and direction well. When he gets into the open field, he makes good cuts and can be hard to stop in 1-on-1 situations.
One again there was a concentration on his lack of blocking ability, you can see the entire scouting report be clicking on the link above. However, this site differs with Side Line Scouting in terms of Hunter's ability to break tackles, they believe his powerful legs and low center of gravity makes him hard to bring down. I would tend to agree with this assessment.
I like how Hunter plays in the open field, this will allow him to gain more "tough" yards; which is desperately needed in the NFL. You are not going to see Hunter break off many long runs in the NFL. In fact, he only had one run of over 30 yards in 2010. But, that lack of a home run ability really doesn't hurt his transition to the NFL.
Unlike in the heyday of NFL defenses, players seem to be attempting arm tackling much more today. There are multiple reasons for this.First, they fear injury and losing their career. Secondly, they fear personal foul penalties. This will only help Kendall Hunter moving forward. HE WILL NOT BE ARMED TACKLED. In fact, watching video highlights and over 6 entire games since Hunter was drafted, I can probably count on one hand how many times he was armed tackled; if that.
Putting It All Together
I am not really sure about the comparisons to Ray Rice, who has caught 175 passes in his first three seasons; something you will not see from Kendall Hunter. But, in terms of running style I see the similarities.
That said, the comparison that draw to current a current NFL player would be to Maurice Jones-Drew, who saw himself fall to the end of the 2nd round because of worries about his size. If you watch both run, you will know exactly what I am talking about. Jones-Drew might be a little faster, but the running styles are incredibly similar.
We are going to see Kendall Hunter be a major part of the 49ers offense in 2011 if a couple different things happen. First, Tom Rathman is able to help him with the blocking schemes and fix his stance in regards to that part of the game. Secondly, Anthony Dixon gets more reps as a full back, therefore, opening up a back up role for Hunter behind Frank Gore. Additionally, I don't think that Harbaugh is going to over use #21, so there will be plenty of balls to go around in the rushing game.
If you look at it in terms of production, I think that Hunter may be one of the most pro-ready RBs in the 2011 draft class. He was a captain for Oklahoma State in 2011, was a starter half way through his freshman season, and is extremely intelligent in terms of offensive schemes; he will pick up the offense rather quickly.