FCS football preview: A.J. Hines, Duquesne a perfect marriage
About a year ago, A.J. Hines didn't even know Duquesne existed.
The Wilson, N.C., native was preparing to enter his freshman season at Richmond before finding out his ACT score was one point too low. He could have attended a prep school, but that meant sitting out a year of college football.
It was mid-June. Most Division I FBS and FCS teams' rosters were full. But Duquesne had an opening at running back, and one of Richmond's recruiting coordinators, who felt bad about Hines' situation, put the sides in touch.
"I didn't even know Duquesne was up here," Hines said. "That was the first time ever hearing about the college."
The coaches won him over during his visit, and it didn't hurt that Hines' favorite team is the Steelers.
"It was a blessing," Hines said. "If it weren't for Duquesne, I wouldn't be playing college football right now."
The Dukes probably are just as thankful. Hines broke freshman school records with 1,291 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns last season and won the Jerry Rice Award as the top freshman in FCS. He helped Duquesne finish 8-3 and earn a share of the Northeast Conference title.
Expectations are high again for the Dukes, who received votes in the STATS FCS preseason poll. They open the season at 8 p.m. Thursday at South Dakota State, which is ranked sixth in the FCS preseason coaches' poll.
The game serves as a big stage for Hines, who has NFL aspirations and received some words of wisdom when he met Rice at the awards ceremony.
"It made me want to be great," Hines said. "The things he was telling me motivated me to get better, make sure I'm not satisfied with where I'm at."
The 5-foot-11, 225-pound Hines grew up rooting for Steelers running backs Willie Parker and Rashard Mendenhall, but Dukes senior offensive lineman Ben Huss sees another comparison.
"I would say a 50-pound lighter Jerome Bettis," Huss said with a laugh.
Hines said he models himself after the Raiders' Marshawn Lynch.
"I feel like we have a little bit of the same toughness, the same attitude, the same want-to that nobody can stop us," Hines said.
Some of Hines' toughness comes from playing linebacker in high school. That's where FBS schools such as North Carolina, South Carolina and East Carolina envisioned him playing when they expressed interest. But Hines preferred offense, where Dukes coach Jerry Schmitt said Hines exhibits a special blend of talents.
"He has the size and strength to be a physical runner, yet for his size and strength, he has quick feet that allow him to jump cut and avoid tacklers," Schmitt said. "What's most impressive is his burst."
Hines can expect extra attention this fall as Duquesne tries to replace four-year starting quarterback Dillon Buechel, who graduated as the NEC's all-time leading passer.
Boise State graduate transfer Tommy Stuart will start the opener, but until he establishes himself, opposing defensive coordinators figure to game-plan around Hines.
Then again, maybe it won't matter.
"Teams can play different all they want or put a spy on him, but he's still going to make them miss," Huss said.
Jeff Vella is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at email@example.com or via Twitter @JeffVella_Trib.