Prairie View’s Johnta’ Hebert was perfectly comfortable piling the type of statistics that eventually earned him All-Southwestern Conference and All-American recognition.
But the former Glen Oaks standout, entering his final season, wanted more out of his career.
“I took a step away from the personal goals and just wanted to win,” Hebert said. “My main goal is to win a SWAC championship and (HBCU) national championship.”
As fate would have it, with Southern (3-2, 3-0 SWAC) holding its homecoming at 4 p.m. Saturday, Hebert’s preseason objectives are riding on his own personal homecoming when Prairie View (3-2, 3-1) visits Mumford Stadium.
“I can’t even dial down the hype,” said Hebert, noting he tried this week to secure 20-30 tickets for family. “It’s a big game for me, with this being my last time to play in Baton Rouge. More importantly it’s a big game for our season if we want to keep our hopes alive.”
Hebert realizes there’s no longer any room for error, a 70-54 loss to Grambling State (4-2, 4-0) having taken care of that.
Sensing the time may be right for one of his signature games Hebert jump-started the Panthers in last week’s 45-6 victory over Mississippi Valley, rushing 17 times for 107 yards and catching a touchdown.
“He plays the game the way it’s meant to be played so I have been extremely impressed with the way he approaches the game,” Prairie View coach Willie Simmons said. “He continues to play at a high level and like I challenge the team every week. If we could all play at the level that No. 3 (Hebert) is playing at, we should beat everyone on our schedule.”
Hebert’s endeared himself to Simmons more with his off-the-field leadership than his on-field output.
It wasn’t a trait the normally low-key Hebert was totally comfortable with but came to value.
“I didn’t think my role as a leader would have to be different but as things played out I saw that I had to be more vocal,” Hebert said. “I don’t like to talk much. I’m still growing and learning to be a leader.”
One numerical goal that remains a constant for Hebert is 3,000 all-purpose yards.
Hebert cracked the 2,000-yard mark a year ago but fell short in his ultimate quest to lead the nation — regardless of division — in all-purpose yards, which is an accumulation of rushing, receiving and return yardage.
Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon led the way with 2,740, with Hebert giving a hearty chase, totaling 2,253 yards. He rushed for a 1,000 yards for the first time (170-1,063, 12 TDs) and averaged 28.8 yards per kickoff return.
Hebert was bestowed with his initial All-SWAC first team honor at both running back and kick returner. He wound up leading all FCS players in yards per game (225.3).
“I’m still hungry just as much as I was last year, but I’ve got more on the line,” said Hebert, a first team preseason All-SWAC choice at running back/kick returner and member of the STATS FCS first team Offensive Player of the Year Watch List. “I’ve got an opportunity to provide for my family.”
Not only has Hebert’s productivity caught the attention of NFL scouts, but so has his versatility to run the ball and catch passes out of the backfield or lined up in the slot.
Hebert’s career production, which includes his 381 rushing yards this season, includes 446 carries for 2,563 yards and 109 receptions for 937 yards.
Hebert’s ability to run 4.4 or under, along with his elusiveness, has made him one of the nation’s most dangerous returners, averaging a career-best 32.3 yards this year.
Over his 38-game career, Hebert’s piled up 6,421 all-purpose yards or an average of 160.5 per season with 24 touchdowns.
“When I think about all of the things that I’ve done, it’s overwhelming,” Hebert said. “I came in and grew each year, got better and my numbers improved each year.
“It’s really helped my confidence where I believe I’m good enough to play on the next level.”
Advocate sportswriter Les East contributed to this report.