Toledo freshman Kareem Hunt tries to escape the grasp of Bowling Green State University’s D.J. Lynch during a game last week. Hunt has run for 241 yards and three scores the past two games against Navy and BG.
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Kareem Hunt’s college football recruitment consisted of three big-time programs, three persistent coaches at a smaller program, and three words emblazoned on a T-shirt.
“You’ve been Kareemed.”
Shirts broadcasting that jeer were a hot item at Willoughby South, where Hunt tantalized northeast Ohio fans with statistics so out-of-this-world that most Mid-American Conference programs never stood a chance of entering his college shortlist.
One of them did, and in turn, the University of Toledo is experiencing how it feels to be Kareemed. Hunt’s efforts the past two weeks are a major reason the Rockets are 5-3 instead of 3-5 heading into today’s game at the Glass Bowl with Eastern Michigan.
With starter David Fluellen injured, Hunt did his best Fluellen impersonation and stampeded defenders for 100-plus yards in wins against Navy and Bowling Green. Both wins came down to the final possession.
“There were some runs in that game sometimes you didn’t know who was in,” coach Matt Campbell said of Hunt’s 114-yard, one-TD performance in Saturday’s 28-25 win at BG.
So how did Toledo manage to land a BCS-level recruit, one who attracted offers from Pittsburgh, Iowa, and Minnesota, and who ran for 5,204 yards and 83 touchdowns his junior and senior seasons? It involved a dogged effort by three coaches beginning Hunt’s sophomore year.
Campbell, then the offensive coordinator, used his pre-existing relationship with Hunt’s coach to establish a rapport with the precocious athlete. From there, Campbell ordered running backs coach Louis Ayeni to travel to Willoughby to get a closer inspection.
“He said, ‘Go look at this kid and tell me if you like him,’ ” Ayeni recalls. “I remember walking into the room, and I said to myself this kid’s a no-doubter. He looks the part. Good kid, productive. I offered him immediately.”
Hunt’s recruitment eventually switched hands to offensive line coach Tom Manning, a Youngstown native tasked with recruiting northeast Ohio. Ayeni remained involved.
Some coaches on Toledo’s staff advised Ayeni to forget it, that he was wasting his time. Toledo is not supposed to bring in guys like Hunt, who in addition to his football prowess is gifted in track and field, finishing the 100-meter dash in 10.7 seconds and clearing 6 feet, 5 inches in high jump. He stands a modest 5-11, but Hunt can dunk a basketball, according to Ayeni, “like it’s nobody’s business.”
“I just felt like we had a good enough connection that we’d always be in the fight,” Ayeni said. “Now when those big schools kept coming, it’s hard. They have the glitz and the glam. I kept trying to sell him on the best things that we have at Toledo.”
Among the sells was playing time. Hunt in recent weeks emerged as the primary back up to the senior Fluellen, leaping redshirt freshman Damion Jones-Moore and junior Cassius McDowell.
Displaying the same combination of power and shake that catapulted Fluellen into the lore of great Toledo backs, Hunt diced Navy two weeks ago for 127 yards and two TDs.
Hunt (318 yards, 6.6 yards per carry) could make his first career start today if Fluellen isn’t recovered from a lower body injury.
“I don’t want to say ‘ever’ because I’ve only been here four years, but he’s probably the most physically imposing running back, freakish athlete, to come in,” Ayeni said.
Hunt was unavailable to speak for this story per Toledo’s policy prohibiting media from interviewing freshmen.
Ayeni recalls arriving Hunt’s house to see his mother outfitted in ‘You’ve been Kareemed’ gear, and he joked this week that now would be an opportune time for the Rocket team shop to profit from the slogan. Receiver Bernard Reedy said Hunt wore a shirt with the saying on his official visit last November.
Academic concerns scared off some bigger schools, but offers from Pittsburgh, Minnesota, and Iowa remained standing in January when Hunt pledged his allegiance to Toledo. A convoy of the three coaches who recruited him — Campbell, Ayeni, and Manning — drove to Hunt’s home to, as Ayeni said, “see if we were still in it.”
No one was anticipating his commitment.
Ayeni called Jan. 4 “a great day for all Rocket fans.”
“Honestly, he should be at Ohio State,” Ayeni said. “I would have taken him if I was there.”