Light­ing up the night

Tex­ans host un­beaten Chiefs on ‘SNF’

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - aaron.wil­son@chron.com twit­ter.com/aaron­wilson_nfl By Aaron Wil­son

De­shaun Wat­son has elec­tri­fied crowds, earned a sig­nif­i­cant amount of praise from his el­ders and daz­zled with his rare elu­sive­ness and poise.

The Tex­ans’ quar­ter­back plays with a calm­ness un­com­mon for any passer, let alone one who’s only 22 years old and en­ter­ing his fifth NFL game. Wat­son is mas­ter­ing the art of re­main­ing un­fazed by com­pli­cated de­fen­sive schemes, or be­ing dis­tracted by the sideshow of what ac­com­pa­nies be­ing the man of the mo­ment at foot­ball’s most im­por­tant po­si­tion.

Ka­reem Hunt is emerg­ing as an artist at the jump cut move, shuf­fling his feet in rapid-fire fash­ion like pis­tons to leave tack­lers grasp­ing at air.

The Kansas City Chiefs’ rookie run­ning back sen­sa­tion is tough enough to lower the boom and pun­ish lineback­ers, fast enough to run away from them and smart enough to de­ci­pher de­fenses in­tended to con­tain him.

Since fum­bling on his first NFL carry, Hunt has prac­ti­cally been per­fect and he leads the league in rush­ing yards for an un­de­feated team.

The two lead­ing can­di­dates for NFL Rookie of the Year hon­ors col­lide Sun­day night at NRG Sta­dium.

“They’re both do­ing a great job,” Tex­ans star de­fen­sive end J.J. Watt said. “Ob­vi­ously, it’s a very dif­fi­cult league to play in, so when you can come in early and have as much suc­cess as they’ve had so far, I think it’s a tes­ta­ment to how hard they work, how tal­ented they are and also, ob­vi­ously, bright things are com­ing for the fu­ture.”

The Tex­ans will try to ride the wave of Wat­son’s grow­ing rise into one of the most ex­cit­ing young play­ers in the game. The Chiefs will counter with Hunt, a thir­dround draft pick who en­tered the NFL with con­sid­er­ably less fan­fare than Wat­son and has made an im­me­di­ate im­pact as the re­place­ment for Spencer Ware. Front and cen­ter

In a league al­ways on the hunt for new tal­ent, Wat­son and Hunt have gone from be­ing on deck to be­ing front and cen­ter right away.

“That’s how it is ev­ery year, there’s al­ways some­one dif­fer­ent,” Tex­ans vet­eran cor­ner­back Johnathan Joseph said. “De­shaun is do­ing a great job for us and we’ve got his back. The Chiefs have a great scheme and a his­tory of great run­ning backs, and Hunt is pick­ing up where they left off.

“The game, the field di­men­sions, the size of the ball, it doesn’t change. There are smarter guys and guys run a lit­tle faster here, but the game is go­ing to be the same. You take your skill set from the col­le­giate level, you bring it up here and your con­fi­dence level should stay at a high level.”

Re­gard­less of the stakes or dif­fi­culty of the op­po­nent, both play­ers keep con­tribut­ing to their re­spec­tive teams’ vic­to­ries.

Although Wat­son and Hunt play dif­fer­ent po­si­tions in their teams’ back­fields, they share some com­mon traits in terms of at­ti­tude, moves and con­fi­dence.

“It’s a tribute to both kids,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “They’re work­ing their tails off, I’m sure. I’m not with De­shaun ev­ery day, but I know how he’s wired. My kid here, he works is tail off and is so dili­gent in all phases of the game, which is unique for a young guy. I ap­pre­ci­ate Ka­reem’s at­ti­tude and dili­gence to learn the game. That’s what im­presses me the most.” Smooth tran­si­tion

At the quar­ter pole of the sea­son, Wat­son and Hunt have emerged as two of the top rook­ies re­gard­less of po­si­tion.

A na­tional cham­pi­onship game win­ner over Alabama in his fi­nal game at Clem­son, Wat­son ar­rived in the NFL with high ex­pec­ta­tions as the 12th over­all pick of the first round. Hunt was a rel­a­tively un­her­alded third-round draft pick from Toledo who caught NFL scouts’ eyes at the Se­nior Bowl all-star game.

“I think that these guys nowa­days, a lot of these guys have played in such big — look, it’s prob­a­bly more re­lated to De­shaun than it is Hunt, but they’ve played well in col­lege,” Tex­ans coach Bill O’Brien said. “They’re coached well in col­lege. Some of these guys, the stage isn’t too big for them.”

Wat­son ac­counted for five to­tal touch­downs dur­ing a 57-14 vic­tory he en­gi­neered over the Ten­nessee Ti­tans a week ago and was named AFC Of­fen­sive Player of the Week. That ac­com­plish­ment was the sec­ond-most scores in a game by a rookie in NFL his­tory be­hind Chicago Bears leg­end Gale Say­ers in 1965.

He also be­came the third rookie quar­ter­back in NFL his­tory to have four or more touch­down passes and one or more rush­ing scores, the first to do so since Min­nesota Vik­ings quar­ter­back Fran Tarken­ton in 1961.

He’s the only rookie in NFL his­tory to have seven or more pass­ing touch­downs and two or more rush­ing touch­downs in the first four games of the sea­son.

The Chiefs wound up draft­ing Texas Tech quar­ter­back Pa­trick Ma­homes in the first round, but they spent plenty of time with Wat­son dur­ing the draft process.

“We had a ton of re­spect for him and we had him in here and spent a lot of time with him and just thought he was go­ing to be a re­ally, re­ally good foot­ball player,” Reid said. “And he’s do­ing just what we fig­ured. He’s a good one.”

Wat­son has passed for 811 yards and seven touch­downs, rush­ing for 148 yards and two scores. He’s on pace to fin­ish the sea­son with 3,244 yards, 28 touch­downs and 16 in­ter­cep­tions, 592 rush­ing yards and eight touch­downs.

Wat­son is known for his study habits, build­ing a rep­u­ta­tion as an ex­tremely hard worker. He’s in­tel­li­gent, re­spect­ful to his team­mates and fun to watch.

“My opin­ion from day one when he came in here, he’s been very se­ri­ous about what he’s done,” Tex­ans quar­ter­backs coach Sean Ryan said. He’s been a ma­ture guy, kind of be­yond his years in my mind. He never acted like a rookie in terms of how he ap­proached his job. To me, he came in pro­fes­sional, se­ri­ous and I think cer­tainly that’s been a big part of his mat­u­ra­tion and how he’s han­dled things.

“He’s made rookie mis­takes on the field, don’t get me wrong, and we know he will and we’re work­ing to get bet­ter with that ev­ery week, ev­ery day. But the way he ap­proaches his job and the se­ri­ous­ness that he takes it with, it’s im­pres­sive.”

Wat­son does it all with a low-key per­son­al­ity. There’s no hid­ing his con­fi­dence, though. ‘It’s in my DNA’

Ar­riv­ing for games in tai­lored tuxe­dos, Wat­son is draw­ing high marks for his style on and off the field.

“I just be me,” Wat­son said. “It’s in my DNA. That’s how I was raised, so that’s all I know. Re­gard­less of the suc­cess and the fail­ure that you have, al­ways stay level headed and just be the De­shaun Wat­son I’ve al­ways been. I don’t do any­thing out­side the lines to try to stay grounded. It’s just some­thing in me.”

Wat­son is young, but he com­mands re­spect from much older play­ers. They grav­i­tate to­ward him on the field and in the locker room.

“He’s a great leader,” Tex­ans cor­ner­back Ka­reem Jack­son said. “I don’t think you can teach some­one to be a leader. You just have to nat­u­rally have that, and I think he nat­u­rally has that. He’s do­ing some great things right now. He’ll con­tinue to lead us and we’ll con­tinue to be be­hind him 100 per­cent.”

Drafted 86th over­all, Hunt was the sixth run­ning back se­lected in the spring. He was the first run­ning back picked that wasn’t from a Power 5 con­fer­ence.

Hunt leads the NFL with 502 rush­ing yards, gain­ing at least 100 yards in three of four games. He’s on pace to fin­ish the sea­son with 2,008 rush­ing yards. Hunt leads the NFL with 372 rush­ing yards in the sec­ond half of games. That’s more than any other player has gained over­all this year.

“When you look at Hunt run, I mean, he’s built low to the ground,” O’Brien said. “He’s a very, very phys­i­cally tough guy to tackle. He’s fast, he’s a stretch-cut run­ner, he does a great job of press­ing the line of scrim­mage and has re­ally good vi­sion.

“He’s a very, very dif­fi­cult back to tackle. If you let this guy get into the sec­ondary, he’s got that Mau­rice Jones-Drew-type of qual­ity where it’s hard to tackle him. He’s got a big lower body and he’s a strong, strong player. It’s a chal­lenge and he’s done a great job.”

Hunt has forced 25 missed tack­les this sea­son, rank­ing first in the NFL, ac­cord­ing to Pro Foot­ball Fo­cus.

With four con­sec­u­tive games of at least 100 yards from scrim­mage to start his ca­reer, Hunt joined an ex­clu­sive fra­ter­nity as the only other play­ers to do so are Billy Sims, LaDainian Tom­lin­son and Adrian Peter­son. His 659 to­tal yards from scrim­mage ranks sec­ond to Sims in NFL his­tory.

None of this comes as a sur­prise to Tex­ans of­fen­sive guard Greg Mancz. He blocked for Hunt at Toledo.

“My job was to try to open up holes for him, and he made us look good, so I’m thank­ful for that,” Mancz said. “I’m re­ally happy for him. I’ve al­ways known he was a good back. This week, he’s not on the good side.”

Hunt al­ready has scored three touch­downs of 50 yards or longer. He has four plays of 50 yards or longer, more than any run­ning back has gen­er­ated in a full sea­son since Peter­son back in 2012. On a fast pace

Hunt is a ver­sa­tile player who also ex­cels as a re­ceiver, catch­ing all 13 passes thrown to him for 157 yards and two scores.

He’s av­er­ag­ing a stag­ger­ing 7.4 yards per run. Who’s done bet­ter than that in their team’s first four games of the sea­son? Only Hall of Fame run­ner Jim Brown.

“He’s look­ing to run you over, that’s what I like about him as a run­ning back,” Tex­ans Pro Bowl out­side line­backer-de­fen­sive end Jade­veon Clowney said. “He’s got good vi­sion. You bet­ter bring your ‘A ‘game against him and be ready to hit.”

As good as Hunt is, an ad­mit­tedly bi­ased Clowney wouldn’t trade Wat­son for any­body.

“What I see is great play­ers hav­ing great sea­sons so far,” he said. “I think ours is bet­ter than theirs.”

Karen War­ren / Hous­ton Chron­i­cle

De­shaun Wat­son, left, ac­counted for five touch­downs last week­end, the sec­ond­most TDs in an NFL game by a rookie be­hind only Chicago’s Gale Say­ers in 1965.

Sean M. Haf­fey / Getty Im­ages

The Chiefs’ Ka­reem Hunt, right, leads the NFL with 502 rush­ing yards and has reached 100 yards rush­ing in three of four games.

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