Carolina Panthers head coach Matt Rhule envisions Canadian running back Chuba Hubbard becoming a dynamic weapon in his offence.
After all, Rhule has seen Hubbard’s explosiveness firsthand.
The Oklahoma State University graduate rushed 32 times for 171 yards and two touchdowns against Baylor University in 2019 when Rhule was the bench boss for the Bears. After the Panthers selected Hubbard in the fourth round, 126th overall during the 2021 NFL Draft, the two have joined forces in Carolina.
“I had one former executive, a guy on TV, text me and he’s like, ‘It’s pretty simple, when you play against guys and you hate playing against them, they’re people someday you want to put on your team,'” Rhule said.
“We think what he can be is really special moving forward. Having a guy that’s a home run threat that can catch the ball out of the backfield, he provides a lot of versatility.”
While playing football at Bev Facey Community High School in Sherwood Park, Alta., Hubbard ran track and competed at the International Amateur Athletic Federation’s World Youth Championships in 2015. He finished fourth in the 100-metre sprint event, clocking a time of 10.55 seconds in Cali, Colombia.
“I feel like I have a different or unique running style. I’m a playmaker, I feel that I can score from any part of the field and feel like I’m bringing a lot to the Panthers,” Hubbard said.
“This is a guy at one point that was training as an Olympic-type sprinter. He’s really fast and he’s a really good player,” Rhule said.
Hubbard led the NCAA with 2,094 rushing yards and 21 touchdowns as a redshirt sophomore and was named the Big 12 Conference Offensive Player of the Year. He finished eighth in voting for the Heisman Trophy, the most prestigious award in American college football.
Many pundits speculated that he would have been a first, second or even third-round pick had he declared for the 2020 NFL Draft. Instead, Hubbard decided to return to Oklahoma State for his redshirt junior season. Hubbard finished with 133 carries for 625 yards and five touchdowns, by far the worst totals of his collegiate career and it caused his stock to drop.
“We think he was a dynamic player in 2019 that had two injuries last year that he had to rehab during COVID. It was a hard, unique time, and he played through them. He was tough enough and cared enough about his teammates to play on a high ankle sprain,” Rhule said.
“I don’t like to hang myself on it or talk about it too much. I had a lot of surgeries, I had a lot of injuries, just bouncing back. I don’t use that as an excuse, just getting better. I’m healthy right now, happy to say that. I know this upcoming year will be my best year yet,” Hubbard said.
The 21-year-old Hubbard is the first running back from Canada to be selected in the NFL Draft since Tim Biakabutuka in 1996 when the Panthers chose him in the first round. He joins All-Pro running back Christian McCaffrey in Carolina’s backfield as both men look to bounce back from injury-plagued seasons in 2020.
“I got a big chip on my shoulder, I promise they’re going to get the best out of me. Just coming there to win a championship beside Christian McCaffrey, and beside the rest of my Panthers teammates,” Hubbard said.
In 2019, McCaffrey finished the season with 1,387 rushing yards and 15 rushing touchdowns. He also recorded 116 receptions for 1,005 receiving yards and four scores, leading the NFL with 2,392 yards from scrimmage. After McCaffrey became just the third player in NFL history to record 1,000 rushing and receiving yards in a single season, Hubbard felt he was changing the game for running backs.
“In regards to the passing game, I definitely feel that I can be a threat and a weapon. Christian McCaffrey does a lot of work there and I modelled a lot of my stuff when it comes to catching the ball after him, so I feel I can bring a lot of the same stuff he can,” Hubbard said.
McCaffrey’s former Panthers teammate Cam Newton drew in Hubbard as a fan when he earned the 2015 NFL MVP award after throwing for 3,837 yards with 35 touchdowns against 10 interceptions and rushing for 636 yards and 10 touchdowns. Newton led Carolina to an NFL-best 15-1 record that year and Super Bowl 50 appearance.
“Born and raised in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, I always liked the Panthers — I grew up a big Cam Newton fan. I was always watching the Panthers. When they went to the Super Bowl against the Broncos, I was really hoping they were going to win that,” Hubbard said.
All the while Hubbard was starting his ascent to a pro career for himself. During three seasons at Bev Facey High School, Hubbard rushed 458 times for 6,880 yards and 82 touchdowns, averaging 15 yards per carry. Those video game-type numbers helped Hubbard begin his path to the NFL.
“There’s a lot of hidden gems across the border. There needs to be a lot more eyes over in Canada because it seems as if the numbers are only going up,” Hubbard said.
“I hope this shows that younger guys from Canada they can do the same thing and we continue to create this pipeline from Canada to the States for football.”