STILLWATER — A year ago, Mike Gundy had a belief (that Justice Hill would have a big junior season) and a hope (that Hill would stay for the 2019 season).
Injuries shortened Hill’s 2018 season — his junior season with the Cowboys. Before Oklahoma State’s bowl game, he decided to retire from the program so that he could begin preparations for the NFL combine and draft.
Hill departed with a career total of 3,569 yards. With 1,433 more yards, he would have supplanted Thurman Thomas as OSU’s career rushing leader.
A few days ago, there was this NFL.com headline: “Is Justice Hill the Baltimore Ravens’ best?” He’s guaranteed $1.2 million as a rookie, so no one should find fault with his decision to choose pro football.
As Chuba Hubbard became an established weapon last season, Gundy still had a positive situation at the tailback position. It wasn’t until last Friday, though, that Hubbard graduated to real stardom.
The 6-foot-1, 210-pound Canadian closed 2018 with 104 yards in Bedlam, 134 yards against West Virginia and 145 yards during the bowl win over Missouri. He opened 2019 with explosive productivity: during Oklahoma State’s 52-36 season-opening victory at Oregon State, he ran for 227 yards, scored three touchdowns and averaged 8.5 yards per attempt.
Through one full weekend of college football, he is the national leader in rushing yards and all-purpose yards.
On Twitter, OSU fans raved about the first-start performance of redshirt freshman quarterback Spencer Sanders and the continued brilliance of wide receiver Tylan Wallace, but for Gundy the most comforting of all sights was the combination of a strong offensive-line performance and Hubbard’s playmaking.
Oregon State’s run defense was terrible last season and on Friday, but Hubbard made special plays that can result in big yardage against most opponents — if not all opponents.
Over his past five games, he has rushed for 652 yards and eight TDs.
Gundy is right back where he was at this time in 2018 — with a belief (that Hubbard now, undeniably, is an elite back) and a hope (that Hubbard will still be a Cowboy in 2020).
As a third-year sophomore, Hubbard at the end of this season becomes eligible for the NFL draft.
If he stays healthy, he’s capable of monstrous statistics and dazzling highlights. Against hopelessly outclassed high school competition in Canada, he averaged 15 yards per carry and was a three-time, age-group national champion in the 100 meters.
“You realize that he’s just scratching the surface,” Gundy said on Monday. “Up there (in Canada), it just wasn’t fair.”
In a combine setting, Hubbard’s 40 time would be striking. In every NFL office today, there’s already a Chuba Hubbard file.
If he makes the decision to enter the professional process, Hubbard surely would be among the first five running backs drafted.
“He loves Oklahoma State,” Gundy said, but, the coach added, it would be foolish to pretend Hubbard isn’t motivated by the money potential in the NFL.
“I said this a month ago, and it’s true: he is really serious about football now,” Gundy continued. “There’s no jacking around. He’s serious in practice. He’s serious in the weight room. He’s serious in meetings.
“He’s in a mode right now where he’s saying, ‘Here’s the deal: If I can do this for two years, I can take care of my family for a long time.’ ”
The most interesting aspect of that quote is Gundy’s reference to “two years.”
Against Oregon State, Hubbard didn’t look like a guy who’ll play two more seasons of college football. At 6 p.m. Saturday, OSU hosts an FCS opponent — the McNeese Cowboys — for the 6 p.m. home opener at Boone Pickens Stadium. Hubbard may not total more than 10 carries in a blowout, but he’ll get an easy 100 yards.
The lineage of exceptional, Gundy-coached tailbacks includes Dantrell Savage, Keith Toston, Kendall Hunter, Joseph Randle and Hill — each of whom had a single-season total of at least 1,100 yards.
With two seasons of better than 1,500 yards, Hunter remains the gold standard among Gundy’s tailbacks. This season, the gifted Hubbard strives to become OSU’s next A-list back.
From a talent standpoint, he’s already there. There’s no question about that.
The more legitimate question centers on his 2020 status, and whether he’ll be an OSU Cowboy or Hill’s colleague in the NFL.