Early on Sunday morning, as news of Spencer Ware’s likely season-ending injury spread through the Chiefs’ practice facility, Ware offered some advice to his rookie replacement, Kareem Hunt.
“Stay patient and don’t make it bigger than what it is, pretty much — just be under control,” Hunt recalled.
Hunt, 22, now will be charged with putting those words into action. The Chiefs are betting that he is, as coach Andy Reid announced Hunt will be the immediate replacement for Ware, whose season is likely over because of a knee injury he sustained in the Chiefs’ third preseason game Friday at Seattle.
“I think we’re going to be OK there,” Reid said. “Now, are we going to replace Spence? No. I mean, he’s a good football player. But the young kid, he’ll step in and he’ll do a nice job for us.”
Chiefs head athletic trainer Rick Burkholder said Ware sustained a torn posterior cruciate ligament and damaged the posterior lateral corner of his right knee, which likely will require surgery. He will seek a second opinion, however.
“He damaged those and at this point in time, our medical staff believes that he needs season-ending surgery to correct that problem,” Burkholder said. “But like with all these significant injuries, we’ll exhaust all of our options and look at second opinions and then do what’s best for Spencer’s knee and his career.”
Despite the sliver of optimism Burkholder left regarding Ware’s chances of returning, Ware will miss several games, at the very least.
That means the starter for now is Hunt, though other backs in line for carries include veteran Charcandrick West — who has started games for the Chiefs before — and veteran C.J. Spiller, who has looked quick this preseason after suffering through two injury-marred years.
“Most likely, again we’ll rotate all of them, but Hunt will probably be working with the ones,” Reid said.
Reid said the timing of Ware’s injury was unfortunate. Ware, 25, is entering his second year as a starter after rushing for 921 yards and three touchdowns in 214 carries last season.
“(He) came back in great shape, was looking forward to having another real good season,” Reid said. “Things happen, he knows that, and whatever direction (Ware goes) — whether he has to have surgery or they find another (option) — he’ll be back and going strong after he rehabs.”
Through three preseason games, Ware rushed eight times for 24 yards and a touchdown and also caught five passes for 29 yards.
“Spencer was so good at everything,” starting quarterback Alex Smith said. “He was good in space, a good receiver for a bigger guy, physical runner but nimble enough in space to hit the edge ... it will definitely be tough to replace him.”
At 5 feet 10 and 229 pounds, Ware was the biggest Chiefs running back, and his hard-charging style will be missed, especially on the goal line.
“He sure was good at that,” Reid said. “I think one of the other guys will have to step into that role — we just don’t have quite as many snaps with those guys in that situation, but I think they’re capable of doing it.”
Hunt is the next-biggest back at 5-foot-11 and 208 pounds, so he could easily be the next man up in those situations, provided he holds up in pass protection.
“The thing is ... backs have to handle everything, right?” Smith said. “They have to handle the run game, they have to handle protections, they have to handle the pass game. We put a lot on their shoulders.”
Reid said Hunt has made some strides in pass protection, though.
“The last two weeks of camp, I really thought he picked it up,” Reid said. “I thought he was really getting a pretty good grasp of it. And then he’s had a couple pickups in this these games, which has proved that.”
The Chiefs shouldn’t have any issue with Hunt as a runner. He only fumbled once in college and has impressed teammates, coaches and observers in training camp with his quickness, vision, contact balance and catching ability, often showing the reasons the Chiefs traded up in the third round to draft him in May.
“Really talented with the ball in his hands, physical — same kind of style (to Ware), I think — has some shake, still has some speed,” Smith said.
Through three preseason games, he’s rushed 18 times for 79 yards, an average of 4.4 yards per carry (against first-string defenses, by the way) — and caught four passes for 32 yards.
“The first time I met Kareem, I knew this was a guy that was going to be special,” backup quarterback Patrick Mahomes said. “Just someone that works hard, really cares about his position in every aspect of running the ball, catching the ball, pass blocking. That’s what you need to do as a running back in this offense, is do all of those things, and he does all them exceptionally well.”
As a true freshman at Toledo in 2013, Hunt stepped in for star senior David Fluellen and rushed 110 times for 548 yards, an average of 6.0 yards per carry.
“I just had to make sure I took it play-by-play and (not) try to do everything at once,” Hunt said. “It went well — I’m here where I am right now.”
Hunt will use the same approach when the Chiefs open the regular season with a nationally televised Thursday night game against the defending champion New England Patriots on Sept. 7.
“I mean, it’s a dream come true,” Hunt said. “It’s not the way I wanted it to happen, but now is my time to step up and fill some big shoes.”