The deck was stacked against Jason Huntley in his journey to the NFL. The 5-foot-9 running back was stuck behind a highly-recruited running back at Arlington Martin High School, forced to take many snaps at defensive back throughout his high school days. He only received one Division I offer from New Mexico State as a two-star recruit.
Huntley ended up signing with the Aggies as his only real offer, but once again ended up stuck behind another elite talent, this time AP All-American Larry Rose III. He eventually got his chance in 2018, though, and ran (very quickly) with it. The running back went for over 1,000 yards from scrimmage in 2018, and eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark on the ground in 2019 on 7.1 yards per carry.
“Jason got to sit for a couple years, and, in terms of being the starter, he didn't have to kind of take that role on,” New Mexico State running backs coach Matthew Christian told Pride of Detroit.
Huntley was the first player Christian signed on the recruiting trail when he took over his position in 2016. The coach’s first impression of the running back while watching his high school film was similar to the first impression many fans will have.
“The speed stood out,” Christian said of Huntley’s high school film, “His first 10 or 15 plays, no one’s coming anywhere close to him. He just had a different gear.”
The running back still had a long way to go when he arrived at Las Cruces, though. He weighed in at only 150 pounds and was still fairly raw. The Aggies coaching staff found a way to make sure his incredible speed was not going to waste, though.
“We got to use him as a slot receiver, as a kick returner, as a scat back, motion guy. So he got to do a lot of different things in the offense as he grew ... we were able to use him in a bunch of different roles,” Christian added, “He’s a really versatile kid, a smart kid, obviously being able to understand the game and understand overages and all of that. He helped us a lot for sure, he was dynamic wherever we put him.”
The running back’s work as a kick returner included what proved to be one of the biggest plays in program history in the 2017 Arizona Bowl. New Mexico State fell behind after allowing a momentum-changing kickoff return touchdown. Huntley’s speed quickly got his team right back in front, though.
#lions fifth round running back @thejasonhuntley's 100 yard kick off return in the 2017 arizona bowl, helping lead the team to their first bowl game victory in over 50 years pic.twitter.com/HiITPtCw39— mansur (@mansurshaheen) April 29, 2020
Huntley’s return touchdown was one of two times the team found the end zone in regulation that day. They would eventually win in overtime, but they may have not got that far without the huge boost in the first quarter from Huntley. The Aggies had not won a bowl game before this since 1960 (coincidentally, that game was also against Utah State in the Sun Bowl), and it was only their third bowl victory in program history.
The running back now brings that speed and versatility to the next level, and it is clear the Lions’ interest in the player spawned from plays like the running back’s kick off return in the Arizona Bowl.
“Jason’s versatility was a very large component of the evaluation,” Lions Vice President of Player Personnel Kyle O’Brien told Pride of Detroit. “The New Mexico State coaching staff did a very good job of being creative, moving Jason around, and trying to get the ball in his hands multiple ways. And to Jason’s credit, he consistently showed explosiveness, speed, and playmaking ability wherever or however he got the ball.”
Christian believes that Huntley can bring even more than just his speed and explosiveness to the NFL level.
“He is not just fast, he got 20 reps on the bench press at 190 pounds, he’s a strong kid,” Christian said. “He can run routes. He can run between the tackles, He has versatility, no matter what scheme he gets put in.”
A player like Huntley making his way up to the NFL can be big for the Aggies as a program. New Mexico State has finished three of the last four seasons with three or fewer wins. The program has been in limbo since the Western Athletic Conference stopped supporting football, and they have bounced between the Sun Belt conference and FBS Independent ever since.
Volatility between conferences not only hurts revenue, but recruiting as well. On top of that, Las Cruces is a hard place to sell to a 18 year old to move to for his college career. Having a player like Huntley represent the program at the next level can help turn the programs fate around.
“To have offensive skill guys drafted is a really difficult thing, especially running back because the value of the running back in the NFL is constantly changing,” Christian said, “So to show that you’ll go to this school and we’ll develop you... [he looks] the way he looks and runs the way he runs, you know it’s huge for us.”
Huntley enters the NFL with a lot on his shoulders. He will have to compete with two of the top running back prospects in recent history for playing time—in D’Andre Swift and Kerryon Johnson. He will carry the weight of representing a struggling football program, and he he’ll have to overcome the odds of being an undersized, 190-pound running back at the NFL level. This kind of adversity is nothing new to him, though. In a matter of five years, Huntley has gone from an undersized backup high school running back to NFL draft pick. Succeeding at the next level is just another step.