Adam Lindner | Sports Editor
On Thursday, the Duquesne football team will begin their 2017-18 campaign at South Dakota State. The Jackrabbits, reigning co-champions of the Missouri Valley Conference, are ranked fourth in the STATS FCS Top 25 poll to begin the year. The Jacks stand to provide a stout test for the Dukes in their first game of the season.
Duquesne, reigning co-champions of the respective Northeast Conference along with St. Francis, would instead like to win the NEC outright this year. It’s quest for a third-consecutive league title, however, will have to be taken one step at a time.
“Of course, [we’d like to] win the championship by ourselves, and then make it to the [FCS] playoffs, and make a run when we get there,” said sophomore tailback A.J. Hines. “We just want to come and take it game-by-game, and come win games,” he said.
“I feel like my team this year has more talent than last year, but we’re young, so we’re just trying to put that together and get the young kids acclimated to what we’re doing now,” Hines remarked.
A big reason for Duquesne’s success last season was the aforementioned halfback. In 2016-17, Hines rushed for a Duquesne freshman record 1,291 yards and 13 touchdowns, and caught 15 passes for an additional 200 yards and one touchdown in 11 games.
If the Dukes hope to have a shot at three-peating in the NEC, they’ll need another remarkable campaign from their sophomore running back.
As recently as May 2016, however, Hines could have never foreseen any of this. Especially not in a Duquesne uniform, being that he didn’t even know that the institution existed before he was contacted by the program.
Originally committed to CAA powerhouse Richmond, Hines’ standardized test scores were slightly too low, thus denying him admission into his original school of choice.
Faced with either attending a prep school for a semester and then reapplying to Richmond or deciding to attend another D-I institution, Hines fielded a call from Duquesne, proceeded to visit and then committed to the Dukes that same weekend.
A year later, all has worked out well for both parties as Hines is a key cog in Duquesne coach Jerry Schmitt’s offense. He feels comfortable and prepared to accomplish even more this season, now already having a year on the Bluff under his belt.
“I feel like I know more within the offense that we run, and I feel like I’m getting bigger and stronger, from me being here over the offseason and for workouts, I just feel different and more mature than I was last year,” Hines said.
Nicknamed “Baby Gurley” while starring at Fike High School in Wilson, North Carolina, after fellow North Carolina-native and star Los Angeles Rams tailback Todd Gurley, Hines instead prefers to liken his running style to that of Oakland Raiders back Marshawn Lynch.
“He’s a tough back, and I think we got the same mindset. He’s got breakaway speed when he gets loose in the open field, he can run anybody over, he can juke somebody out, and I think I like to model my style after him.”
No matter which NFL star you prefer to liken Hines’ game to, both approximations are equally flattering and relatively accurate. Both are downhill runners that are nightmares for defenders to try to stop. Hines’ strong frame – he stands at 5-11, 225 lbs – complemented by his speed, makes for a back that’s able to run defenders over, as well as reach top speed once free in the open field.
Heading into his sophomore season, Hines seems eager to begin his second year on the Bluff this Thursday against No. 4 South Dakota State.
“Probably the most exciting one is the game we’re coming up on,” Hines said. “We play a top-five team in the nation, and it’s a sold out game, so it’s definitely going to be exciting. I’m ready to go [up there] and show what we got.”
As Hines has become increasingly comfortable within Duquesne’s offense during his time here, he said that his personal acclimation in uprooting himself from rural North Carolina to downtown Pittsburgh has gone smoothly, as well.
There are only a few challenges and things that he misses from home. Among them are southern food and, strangely enough, the hills of Duquesne’s downtown campus.
“The biggest challenge to me is probably the hills. I’m not used to all of these hills, and down south it’s mostly flat. All of this walking around tires my legs out,” Hines joked.
As it turns out, even the school’s star running back gets a little winded booking it from Fisher to College Hall.
Among several of Hines’ most memorable moments from last season, winning the FCS STATS Jerry Rice Award, which is awarded to the subdivision’s most outstanding freshman, is among them. Hines was also named the NEC Offensive Rookie of the Year and was named to the All-NEC First Team.
“It was a once-in-a-lifetime thing,” Hines said of meeting NFL great Jerry Rice at an awards ceremony in January. “He’s a good person. He talked to me about a lot of things, just from the time that I was with him. He told me some of his stories [from] growing up, and it just inspired me to get better and that I can make it from a little school. He talked to me about stuff like that.”
Rice played collegiately at Mississippi Valley State before going on to the NFL, where he enjoyed a Hall of Fame career with the 49ers, Raiders and Seahawks.
Hopefully for Hines and for the Dukes, last season’s accomplishments and accolades are only the beginning of what’s to be accomplished during Hines’ career here on the Bluff.
The next chapter begins about 1,100 miles away from Duquesne at 8:00 p.m. on Thursday at a sold out Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium in Brookings, South Dakota.