Running back Nyheim Hines thinks back to his childhood, how he was so young when quarterback Philip Rivers played in college at N.C. State, and is amazed that they’re now Indianapolis Colts teammates.
If the 23-year-old Hines sounds overly enthusiastic about being paired with the 38-year-old Rivers, it’s because he’s so familiar with his passer’s game. In 16 seasons with the Chargers, Rivers became known for maximizing the use of versatile running backs as pass catchers. The speedy, elusive Hines has proven in two NFL seasons to be quite adept at making plays as a receiver with 107 catches for 745 yards and two TDs.
Hines, who also went to N.C. State, now has the opportunity to catch passes from the quarterback he idolized as a kid.
“I do remember him. I really just remember the games he played,” Hines said Wednesday in a Zoom video conference call. “That is actually I think the last time N.C. State wore Nike and that is how I kind of remember it. I remember seeing him in the Nike (No.) 17 (jersey).
“Just seeing him lead that team, they had some great players and just seeing him win games and I remember thinking, ‘Dang, maybe soon I’ll get to play there and help them win games, too,’ which, funny how life works, it kind of happened. Even looking at it, seeing he was in school from 2000-03, I was born in 1996 and started doing the math in my head and I was like, ‘Wow, that guy has played a lot of football.’ So whenever he talks, I’m definitely going to listen.”
Rivers signed a one-year, $25-million contract to join the Colts for 2020. The Colts also drafted Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor in the second round, which means leading rusher Marlon Mack and Taylor are expected to share the rushing workload.
That doesn’t sound like much work for Hines, but again, he’s carved out a role for himself as a reliable third-down back. And the 5-9, 196-pound dynamo emerged on special teams with a pair of punt-return TDs in a Week 16 home rout of Carolina last season.
Third-year Colts head coach Frank Reich, who worked with Rivers as a Chargers assistant from 2013-15, reminded on Monday that he foresees Hines playing an important role in this offense. Colts offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni was with Rivers for five Chargers seasons. The coaches are familiar with how Rivers likes to utilize running backs. Reich mentions Danny Woodhead. The Chargers also had another running-back playmaker in Darren Sproles, diminutive but explosive, just like Hines.
“I’m excited to have Philip, first off,” Hines said. “I’ve seen a lot of film of Woodhead and Sproles since I got in the NFL with coach Sirianni and coach Reich’s background there. There’s a specialized running-back route that Darren Sproles and Woodhead – the Woodheads of the world are great at. They always do a great job of showing me them and what they did.
“Even just with Philip, talking to him about it, just asking him things about routes is something I’m looking forward to. I’m very excited. Been waiting two or three years, just trying to catch balls and hopefully I get a little bit more opportunity. I’m going to try and earn that. The Sproles comparisons are cool, but I’m just going to try and be the best Nyheim Hines I can be. If I can be just half as good as Sproles I think I’ll be OK.”
Sproles retired after last season with 8,392 rushing and receiving yards as well as 55 TDs. He also had 11,313 return yards and nine TDs. He holds several team and NFL records. His 2,696 all-purpose yards in 2011 with New Orleans is a league record.
Woodhead’s best seasons in a nine-year career through 2017 were when he caught 80 and 76 passes for the Chargers in 2015 and 2013.
“Absolutely, I think I’d love to have 70 or 80 balls,” Hines said. “I’m going to take whatever is given to me and I think whatever it is – I think with Philip back there or whoever is back there, I think I’ll be able to make something happen. As a running back, we’re the safety valve. I’ve always thought I was the safety valve that can take a five-yard dump and turn it into 50. That’s really what I’ve been planning on doing the last two years and hopefully show glimpses of it. I would love to do that this year and I think with Philip back there, there would be a great possibility of it.”
To that end, Hines has focused offseason workouts for that role.
“I just wanted to get stronger honestly,” he said. “Obviously, every year I try to get a little bit faster. But with COVID time, I have had some time to get some extra training in without practicing. But really, I wanted to get stronger and make sure I can be cleaner on my routes. I think I have been doing a great job of just working on that.”
He still sees himself handling punt returns, but also hopefully kickoff returns.
The Colts also added USC wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. in the second round of the NFL draft, so the offense has reloaded with more weapons.
“Honestly, I’ve been thinking about it for a long time,” Hines said. “We have a squad. We have a great team – not only offensively. Defensively, we made some great additions. You know all the people that we have got. I think offensively speaking, the only way we can lose is if we beat ourselves or injury. We literally have everything. Not just this year – I think it started when coach Reich got here. We’ve slowly been putting the pieces together – one by one, little by little. I think hopefully this year everything comes together. I’m super excited. I know we have a squad. I think we can play with anybody in the NFL. I think that we will look forward to doing that this year.”
As the old saying goes, Hines just wants to be ready when his number is called.
“I’m sure coach Reich and coach Sirianni and all the people trying to get the offense together, they’re probably having a hard time trying to figure it out with all the weapons,” he said. “I can only imagine what they’re going through.”
(Phillip B. Wilson has covered the Indianapolis Colts for more than two decades and authored the 2013 book 100 Things Colts Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die. He’s on Twitter @pwilson24, on Facebook at @allcoltswithphilb and @100thingscoltsfans, and his email is firstname.lastname@example.org.)