Look Ahead: 2018 Player of the Year — All eyes on Hines

With Jaylen Samuels headed to the NFL, the speedy Wolfpack tailback should get even more touches

NC State running back Nyheim Hines will be the focal point of the Wolfpack offense next season. (Ivan Pierre Aguirre / USA TODAY Sports)

When Stanford’s Bryce Love was announced as a Heisman Trophy finalist, no one was happier about it than NC State’s Nyheim Hines.

The two running backs have known each other since they were children growing up together in Wake County and were stars of the same youth track team before going their separate ways to pursue college football careers.

“We go way back,” Love told ESPN.com last month. “We’re like family.”

Love and Hines don’t get to see much of each other these days since they play at schools in conferences representing opposite coasts.

But if all goes well, there’s a realistic chance they can schedule their own “family” reunion in New York next December at the 2018 Heisman announcement ceremony.

It’s not as far-fetched as it sounds.

Love, from Wake Forest High, is a pre-med major who is likely to return for his senior college season rather than entering the NFL Draft a year early. Hines, meanwhile, is poised to join his friend among the ranks of the national elite after a junior season in which he earned first-team All-ACC honors.

The Garner native rushed for more than 1,000 yards and ranked ninth nationally in all-purpose yardage despite being sidelined for the better part of two games because of nagging injuries.

His ability as a runner, receiver out of the backfield and kick returner, combined with the potential to put up even bigger numbers as the focal point of the Wolfpack’s offense next season, has made Hines the North State Journal staff’s pick as the projected 2018 North Carolina Player of the Year.

“That man is an athlete, right there,” said NC State wide receiver Jakobi Meyers. “People say he’s a track star that plays football, but he’s a football player that happens to run track. He’s a load. I’ve never seen a 5-foot-9 guy run like that.”

Hines won All-American honors on the track as part of State’s ACC champion 4×100 meter relay team while also earning first-team All-ACC recognition for his individual work in the 100-meter dash.

That speed, packed into a compact 5-foot-9, 197-pound frame, makes Hines a threat to score every time he touches the ball.

It was on full display against Pittsburgh, when he ran a punt back 92 yards for a touchdown. It was again in the regular season finale against rival North Carolina, when his scoring runs of 54 and 48 yards in the second half saved the Wolfpack from an embarrassing loss and helped it earn a bid to the Sun Bowl.

“Nyheim at any point in time can explode,” State quarterback Ryan Finley said. “That’s why you’ve got to stick with him.”

Defensive end Bradley Chubb might have been the most talented player on this year’s team, a claim backed up by his ACC Defensive Player of the Year and Bronko Nagurski Trophy selections. Fellow senior Jaylen Samuels was unquestionably the most versatile.

But when it comes to the Wolfpack’s most valuable player, a strong case can be made that it was Hines.

Consider that State won all five games in which he rushed for 100 yards or more. And that in three of the Wolfpack’s four losses, Hines either missed at least a half or was severely limited physically because of injury.

He was limited to two carries for six yards before leaving with a sprained ankle on his team’s first drive at Notre Dame. A week later, he gained only 34 yards on eight carries while trying to play though the pain of his still unhealed injury.

He then missed the entire second half at Wake Forest after getting banged up on a punt return.

His absence had a noticeably adverse effect on State’s offense, which was far less explosive or diverse without him on the field.

“He’s a big-time playmaker for us,” coach Dave Doeren said. “We do have other players, but we don’t have another guy who runs a 10.4 (40-yard dash), returns punts and kicks, and plays tailback. We have to use the other guys we have, but it changes the offense when he’s not in there.”

The fact that Samuels won’t be back and Finley could opt to enter the NFL Draft despite having one year of eligibility remaining figures to give Hines even more chances to shine in 2018.

Either way, he’ll begin the year as one of the frontrunners for ACC Player of the Year honors and the national recognition that goes along with it.

“I’ve been doing a lot of good things,” Hines said earlier this season. “But there’s also a lot of things I can correct. Each week is just a struggle to chase greatness and do everything I can to help this team win.”