MANHATTAN — DeMarcus Robinson, Jarvis Leverett and Charles Jones came to Kansas State from different regions and different backgrounds, but they all had the same goal. One day, they wanted to start at running back.
In order to reach that dream, they first had to wait. With John Hubert, the second-leading rusher in program history, locking down the top spot the past three seasons, none rose above third string. Only Robinson has played in a live game. For years, they have mostly worked behind the scenes, helping each other to make it through practices and workouts with little hope of playing time.
But that is about to change. Hubert has played his last game, which means Robinson, Leverett and Jones are competing for the starting job they have long desired.
“It is a great opportunity,” Leverett said. “John started for three years in a row. Obviously, we learned a lot from him, and now that he is gone he set the bar. We want to be able to step right in and pick up where he left off.”
It won’t be easy. Hubert had his finest season as a senior, rushing for 1,048 yards and 10 touchdowns on 198 carries. K-State is turning to an unproven trio of runners to take over.
For now, K-State coach Bill Snyder says he can’t rank them.
Robinson, a 5-foot-7 senior from Wichita Northwest, might have a slight edge because of his experience. He was a four-star recruit coming out of high school, and he has flashed potential throughout his career. But he has been plagued by injuries. Snyder said Robinson hasn’t been on the field as much as he would like this spring. Leverett and Jones have split most of the carries.
Snyder wants more out of both running backs.
“It’s too early to define the difference between the two in terms of running style,” Snyder said, “because I haven’t figured either one of them out yet. I just can’t quite distinguish. One has a certain style and one has a certain style. There are certain things I maybe have some insight to, but I’m not altogether certain about it.
“Both of them are starting to become more aggressive runners. Both of them have the ability to have good movement in their ball-carrying talents. By that I mean they seemingly have the capacity to make people miss. I haven’t seen any of that on a consistent-enough basis to know that’s something they’re going to be proficient at.”
At the least, they each bring a bigger feel to the position. They will try to impress Snyder in future spring practices, before everyone has their eyes on the running backs position during K-State’s spring game. The top performer will likely head into fall practices with an advantage before incoming freshman Dalvin Warmack joins the competition.
So far, the position battle has been intense.
“We are really competitive,” Jones said. “We have been together for about three years. Now that John is gone we can make each other better. We can help each other and critique each other. That’s why I think it is real competitive right now.”
Leverett, a redshirt sophomore from Katy, Texas, spent the past two seasons on the scout team. He was named the practice squad’s top offensive contributor in 2012, which made some think he could push for playing time last season. But the mixture of injuries and running back depth prevented that kind of rise.
“We were stacked at the running back position,” Leverett said. “I just had to go be a good team player and give the defense a good look.”
Leverett says he is healthy now, and ready to show off his speed behind K-State’s offensive line. The 5-foot-11 running back is capable of running between the tackles and bouncing outside. He is eager to embrace a larger role.
“It’s been an adjustment, but at the same time I have watched so much film and I learned so much from John,” Leverett said. “We all learn so much from each other. To go out and actually make plays, yeah, it was a bit of an adjustment. But we know what to look for now. We know where to look and who to pick up. The game just slows down when you know what to expect.”
Jones, a 5-foot-10 redshirt freshman from Mandeville, La., has also done most of his work on the scout team. Taking reps with the first offense during spring practices was a welcome change.
“It was a good learning experience to see how John runs, especially learning the plays,” Jones said. “He helped us out with that. I took the past two years as a learning experience. I learned my assignments so that when I get my opportunity I can take advantage and run with it.”
Robinson, Leverett and Jones are all aiming for the same goal. There are things to like about all three.
“They are going hard,” senior center B.J. Finney said. “They are tenacious. They want to get as many yards as they can, and that’s great for an offensive line, because we want to run the ball and have a physical playing style and move the ball on the ground. It’s a statement and that is something that Kansas State has taken pride in. ...
“John was great at what he did and these guys remind me a lot of John, just how hungry they are and how they want to move the ball. That is going to work out great for them.”