Kareem Hunt sat on the stool in front of his locker, staring at his bloodied shin.
This was Oct. 19, in the aftermath of the Chiefs’ 31-30 loss to Oakland, and Hunt — the Chiefs’ star rookie running back — had once again carried a big load, rushing 18 times for 87 yards. He also caught four pases for 30 yards.
The bloody shin was unsightly, but it was no more than a long cut and ultimately, not a big deal — the price of being a workhorse NFL running back, Hunt has discovered.
Since replacing starter Spencer Ware, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in August, Hunt has been a revelation, emerging as the NFL’s leading rusher with 717 yards and four touchdowns through the first seven weeks of the season.
During that timespan, Hunt, a 5-foot-10, 208-pounder, has carried the ball 124 times — the seventh most in the league — and his 25 catches (for 285 yards and two touchdowns) rank 17th among running backs.
The 22-year-old Hunt, in short, is on pace to carry the ball 283 times, which will be the most by a Chiefs running back since Jamaal Charles logged 285 carries in 2012.
Hunt has already learned the importance of taking care of himself between games.
“It’s really a race to get healthy,” Hunt said. “It’s really a race to be physically ready to go out there and perform.”
The Oakland game — which was preceded by a physical matchup against Pittsburgh just four days earlier — marked the first time in his NFL career that Hunt had to deal with a turnaround like that.
Chiefs coach Andy Reid gave his players the weekend off, so Hunt spent the weekend in Toledo with his family, enjoying his time off, taking care of his body and reflecting on the first seven games of his career, which Reid thinks have gone pretty well.
“We have a lot of trust in him,” Reid said.
Indeed. Hunt has not only had to replace Ware, a solid back himself, he’s also had to replace Charles, who was unceremoniously released by the Chiefs in February after a sterling nine-year career in Kansas City.
The Chiefs, however, traded up in the third round to grab Hunt in May, and never looked back. He’s been terrific thus far, and the trick now is to make sure he can continue to carry the load as the nicks and bruises add up.
“It’s the National Football League — I’m not telling you he’s waking up after games wanting to go run a marathon, that’s not what he’s doing,” Reid joked. “That’s part of his position. I think he’s doing a heck of job. He was strong again in the fourth quarter, and we have a lot of trust in him and the offensive line. We’ve been running the football very well.”
Reid has leaned on running backs coach Eric Bieniemy and strength coach Barry Rubin to manage Hunt’s workload and help keep him fresh.
“I don’t think he’s not fresh — I think he is where he is in the season,” Reid said. “He’s strong and obviously we’re aware of that ... we rotate enough that he gets a breather with rotation. He’ll be alright.”
Though no other running back has more than five carries this season, given Hunt’s production thus far — in multiple phases of the game — it’s hard to argue with his usage.
“I think the thing that jumps out at me is how many things he is doing well,” quarterback Alex Smith said. “Not just the style of running, but big plays, when he gets into open space, the ability to break tackles. I think the plays in the pass game. You look at last week, a big block he stepped up on a touchdown to Tyreek. That’s a lot on a young back.
“For him to do all those things right now and handle all that stuff says a lot about him, his future is really bright.”
Hunt, obviously, hopes so. But during his time in Toledo during the weekend, he was more focused on finishing the season as strong as he’s started it.
“I want to get better in all phases, playing with 100 percent effort,” Hunt said. “Finishing everything, my runs and my blocks.”