(STATS) - Duquesne football coach Jerry Schmitt laughs that he wishes he was smart enough to make true freshman A.J. Hines his team's starting running back heading into last season.
It may have not mattered because the Dukes lost a blowout to Youngstown State, the eventual FCS runner-up.
But Schmitt was a fast learner because in the second game, he got Hines the ball at the right times. Hines rushed for three touchdowns against Bucknell and cemented the starting job.
While running off to become the Jerry Rice Award winner as the national freshman of the year, Hines was the first Duquesne rookie to surpass 1,000 rushing yards at the FCS level, finishing with 1,291 yards and 13 of his 14 touchdowns on the ground. His 117.4 yards per game ranked ninth in the country.
Much more knowledgeable about Hines this preseason, Schmitt also is much more impressed. The 5-foot-11, 225-pound Hines is working hard to be even better for the Dukes, who were 8-3 last season and are favored to win the Northeast Conference this year.
"We're excited about him this year because we've had him in the offseason in the strength and conditioning program and in our nutrition program," Schmitt said. "If you looked at him last year without equipment, without his shirt on, he wasn't anything you go 'wow'. He now has done a great job in the offseason and is starting to develop his body, so we're excited how that transforms to the football field."
Hines does "wow" defensive coordinators. He earned Northeast Conference rookie of the week honors a conference-record 10 times before claiming the season-ending honor. He also was the only freshman to be named to the NEC first team.
Duquesne is replacing quarterback Dillon Buechel, the NEC's all-time leader in passing yards, so the Dukes might be wise to lean on Hines even more. His next step may be the opposing team's end zone.
"He has some size and he's an aggressive runner physically," Schmitt said, "but for a big kid he has this unique ability with quick feet. He sees and can jump-cut, give you a hip."