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Chuba Hubbard knows things are heating up

Chuba Hubbard

CHARLOTTE — There's a lot that Chuba Hubbard is still getting used to.

Being counted on to carry a bigger load than anticipated in a professional offense is one of them. But the temperatures in the American South are another.

The Panthers rookie running back could only laugh at himself Wednesday, as he broke into a sweat during post-practice press conference. It didn't help that he was wearing a huge, puffy insulated hoodie, and a knit cap. Being Canadian, he even called it a toque (it rhymes with Luke, and people here might call it a toboggan, even though people where he's from think that's a sled).

"I shouldn't have worn this," he said with a laugh, while asking for a towel. "I'm dripping. I just took a shower, and I have to take a shower again. . . .

"Not going to lie, for being Canadian, I wear a lot of hoodies and jackets, even when it's warm, so I get caught in stuff like this a lot. I am literally drenched."

He should probably prepare himself now for the Sunday against the Giants, because if Panthers head coach Matt Rhule is true to his word and the team plans to run more, there's going to be even more heat on the fourth-round pick.

Knowing that Christian McCaffrey won't be back for at least another two weeks while he recovers from his hamstring injury, the expectations for Hubbard are rising faster than the mercury on a sunny afternoon in his new hometown.

He knows that, and he said he's ready for it.

"To be honest, I feel like I've done some good stuff," he said. "Obviously, I need to work on a lot of things. But I just want to take it to the next level; I feel like I can impact the game, make big plays and take things to another level. That's what I'm trying to do."

Asked if there were specific goals, he said "every aspect of the game."

"I want to take one 80 yards to the crib," he said. "I want to catch one and take it to the crib. I want to make a big block. I want to be an impact player for this team."

Hubbard hinted at his big-play potential in the preseason, and showed signs he could handle a more prominent role when he ran for 101 yards against the Eagles.

But there are still plenty of things he needs to work on.

Like every rookie running back in the NFL, he's not polished as a pass-protector. And he's also struggled a bit lately with his hands, dropping a few passes from Sam Darnold when it appeared he had room to run.

"It's crazy because he has really good hands; he really does," Panthers running backs coach Jeff Nixon said. "It's just not natural right now catching the football. We're just going to continue to work on it, catch as many balls as we can every single day, on the Jugs machine, having quarterbacks throw it to him. He just has to work and become more natural at it, because he does have good hands. We just have to get him a little more natural and instinctive catching the ball."

Hubbard only caught 53 passes in three seasons at Oklahoma State, never more than 23 in a season, so from that standpoint, a lack of experience can be explained.

But he's continuing to work, even when he goes home to cool off.

He said his girlfriend would throw with him in the backyard, and he does tennis-ball drills at home, focusing on hand placement and constantly working to become a more dependable pass-catcher.

"It's something I have to work on," he said. "Obviously, I dropped a couple of balls. I'm going to fix it."

Nixon said that work continues, as does the education of a back who was never really responsible for blocking in college. That has perhaps been the most noticeable difference without McCaffrey on the field, because you can't assume other runners will pick things up.

"I think overall he's just becoming a complete three-down back," Nixon said. "He's gotten a lot better at what we try to do protection-wise on third down, learning all of our different protections. That's the biggest adjustment college backs have to make, is being able to play and function on third down. He's doing a great job; I think he's protecting the quarterback, getting real comfortable with our wide zone scheme, he's running that at a high level, making the right cuts, all his fundamentals are getting better, his eyes are in the right spot. He's close to making some long runs for us."

That would certainly help, as the Panthers have struggled during a three-game losing streak in all phases of the passing game, from protection to catching (far beyond Hubbard's stray drops).

That's where having a back with experience working in bulk helps. Hubbard ran 328 times for 2,094 yards and 21 touchdowns as a sophomore at Oklahoma State, and Nixon said he could see Hubbard getting more comfortable in recent weeks.

"He was a volume back in college," Nixon said. "He'll get into a flow, and you see that over the last couple of weeks, he gets better as you get into the flow of the game."

While we're still in the small-sample-size portion of the season, there are some stats to back that up. Hubbard averages 2.5 yards per carry in the second quarters of games, 3.1 yards per carry in the third, and 4.9 yards per carry in the fourth. That's the way they need that trendline to proceed.

Nixon also said there was evidence that his blocking was getting better, pointing to a few particular blocks against Cowboys linebacker Micah Parsons that showed Hubbard was beginning to understand.

"You don't know what to expect with a rookie who left school early, but he's tough," Nixon said. "He's hard-working. He works his butt off in the classroom. Physically he works on the field, and he wants to be great. He's probably one of the toughest guys on the team. He has that toughness in him, and some leadership qualities that will pay off as he gets more experience.

"It shows up in being able to protect the quarterback, in short-yardage, he's breaking some tackles, and has really good play-strength. . . . He's showing he can get an extra 1 or 2 yards, and I think he'll make some longer runs here soon, because he's close."

If he could, it would take some of the heat off an offense that could certainly use it.

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