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WEST LAFAYETTE -- Akeem Hunt is no longer Purdue's running back workhorse, and, yes, that's a good thing.
The senior lacks the mammoth physique of teammate Brandon Cottom (6-4 and 265 pounds). He is 5-10 and 183 pounds. He is also agility and shifty and as fast as he needs to be.
In other words, he's football's version of a home run hitter, which is why he's made the Paul Hornung Award list for the nation's most versatile player for the second straight season.
Do you really want a guy like that running between the tackles and bearing the heaviest running load?
Not a chance, coach Darrell Hazell says, in so many words.
Now Raheem Mostert has that role entering Saturday's season opener against Western Michigan (1-11 last year) Hunt is more of a slot back. He could line up at tailback or receiver or both. He will be in space as much as possible. The idea is to get him isolated on linebackers (a speed mismatch) or, in truth, anybody one-on-one.
"I think (this role) takes so much pressure off of him," Hazell says. "Last year, he had to be THE GUY and be able to carry it 25 times. That's hard in the Big Ten. But now being able to use him in the backfield, spread him out, make him carry it 15 times per game instead of 25-to-30 times, I think that's going to help us.”
Hunt had that role in his first two seasons under former coach Danny Hope. He averaged 8.7 yards a carry as a freshman and 8.0 yards as a sophomore.
But necessity forced him to be the main tailback last season. A struggling offensive line caused the degree of difficulty to soar. Hunt averaged just 3.8 yards a carry. This is not you want from a guy who has busted runs of 50, 62 and 81 yards; who has catches totaling 44 and 63 yards, and who last year averaged 26.1 yards a kickoff return.
"He's got a great burst about him,” Hazell says. “He can get it going in a hurry. That's what makes him so good. He can go from zero to 60 pretty quickly."
Hunt says he's fine with the role change. While Mostert isn't much bigger (5-11, 190), he is strong and fast. He's the reigning Big Ten 100- and 200-meter champ, with a personal best in the 100 of 10.15 seconds. Hunt will defer the up-the-middle rough stuff to Mostert.
“I love this role,” Hunt says. “I might not get that many opportunities, but when I get them they expect me to make a play. Just catch the ball in space and make a move on a defender.
“Everybody has been asking me about. It feels great to get in the open space like my freshman and sophomore years. That's where the big plays are at. I feel good about it.”
Feeling good doesn't mean he won't take on the tough inside yards when necessary, but wide is good.
“I always feel good when I hit the corner,” he says, “because nobody is there.”
Hunt and Mostert comprise one of the Big Ten's fastest backfields. And with an improved offensive line and more familiarity in offensive coordinator John Shoop's system, potential and optimism are high.
“We spread the box and let Raheem do his work in the middle,” Hunt says. “Once he's in the second level, he can take off.
“The running game will be a big help for this offense because we can spread the ball, pass the ball. If we can run, it will take pressure off the quarterback.”
During Purdue's recent Jersey Scrimmage, Hunt took a bobbled snap from quarterback Austin Appleby and turned what could have been a loss into a 75-yard gain.
“Austin just got me the ball and said, 'go,'” Hunt says, “so I just went.”
Add Cottom, David Yancey and Keyante Green and you have a solid running back group.
“Those guys are always pushing to take our spots,” Hunt says. “That's what makes our group special. We've got power backs, speed backs, quick backs. The younger backs run with power and are short, so no one can see them behind the offensive line. Then they have great leverage.”
The 5-9, 210-pound Green, a four-star prospect out of Georgia, looms as the No. 3 tailback behind Mostert and Hunt.
“He runs hard and is physical,” Hazell says. “He can make a lot of good plays. That's what we're looking for.”
Adds Green: “I'll keep working and keep pushing to help us win games. We have guys who bring the speed part of it. I can bring the power and get between the tackles.”
All this suggests the Boilers (1-11 last year) are ready for a big jump after last season's Big Ten worst offense.
“We've made a huge difference when it comes to quick sets, pass protecting, playing fast, making plays,” Hunt says. “We know the playbook. We've made big strides.”
Also, Purdue picked up a pair of in-state offensive linemen over the weekend West Lafayette's Peyton Truitt and Indianapolis Bishop Chatard's Matt McCann. That gives the Boilers 14 commitments for the Class of 2015.
The 6-5, 297-pound Truitt had originally committed to Miami of Ohio before a Purdue offer was too good to pass up. Rivals.com rates him as the state's No. 20 overall player.
The 6-6, 305-pound McCann rates as the state's No. 11 player. He picked the Boilers over Indiana.