- Alex Scarborough, ESPN Staff Writer
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Grant Hill's ascent to one of Alabama's best offensive linemen shouldn't be surprising. He's risen quickly before. The true freshman has been taken for granted, and he's shown again and again why he's better than expected.
For a long time, we didn't know exactly who Grant Hill was. He seemed like another faceless brute in the trenches, a blue-collar kid from Northern Alabama who lacked flash but made up for it with intensity. So often we root for those type of kids to pan out in college, only they rarely do. In the SEC, you need more than true grit. You need skill.
Hill had that, but we just couldn't see it yet. Something in the film didn't jump out the way former No. 1 offensive tackle Cyrus Kouandjio did: His reach held defenders perpetually at bay while his quickness revealed itself as he slid effortlessly left to right. Hill, meanwhile, seemed stuck as a middle of the road prospect waiting to emerge.
"Usually, the guys who are bigger may not have that hunger or that desire, but Grant is an extremely hard worker whether it’s in the weight room or on the field," Scott Sharp, Hill's coach at Huntsville High, told ESPN at the time of his commitment. "He has that meanness that you look for in those offensive linemen. He really has the desire to finish plays, finish blocks. And to not just block folks, but maul them."
It took a while, but we eventually took heed of Hill as an elite prospect. His size was always ideal, but it wasn't until late that his athleticism stood out. We started to see why he was a two-sport star making time to meet with track and field coaches during his visits to campus. His hands were superb, his quickness far better than expected. When he faced the best pass-rushers in the country, he was doing more than holding his own, he was stopping them dead in their tracks. At the Under Armour Game, he was named his team's top offensive lineman.
Hill, who began as a filler prospect in Alabama's recruiting class, was suddenly a centerpiece as the No. 1-ranked guard. He enrolled in school and immediately made an impression.
"He's fast and strong, which I wasn't expecting that," UA right guard Anthony Steen said at SEC media days. He obviously wants to start. Every day he gets up at 6 a.m."
Steen's opinion never wavered. When fall camp began, he complimented Hill's work ethic again, saying, "He's never relaxing. I like that about him."
"He'll probably be one of the best left tackles to come out of here soon," said Cyrus Kouandjio, Alabama's starting tackle.
We didn't know how soon. The starting five was set early in fall camp, and Hill was predictably not a part of it, backing up Kouandjio at left tackle. But even as a reserve, Hill made waves.
Head coach Nick Saban looked at Hill and knew he'd have to burn his redshirt. Saban said he "isn't a guy who's going to sit here with a bad hand" if he can make it better, and in Hill he saw that opportunity.
"I don't care if we're getting beat by 40 or winning by 40, it doesn't matter," Saban said on his radio show last week. "We're going to play him because he deserves to play."
Hill took to the field early this past Saturday, becoming the 10th true freshman to play this season.
"I feel like we need him," Saban said after the game. "I think it creates some competition. I think he's very close to being one of our five best players."
Saban praised Hill's intelligence, calling him a "very bright guy" with "great intangibles."
"Very football smart. ... He's one of those guys that is going to make sure he knows what to do and how to do it."
Hill isn't allowed to speak with the reporters because of UA's policy regarding freshmen, but that didn't stop teammates from praising him after Alabama's rout of Georgia State.
"Grant's a great player," Arie Kouandjio, UA's starting left guard, said. "He's got a lot of potential, and he's really good at focusing in. I think the sky's the limit if he keeps improving."
For now, Hill's impact should be limited to a reserve capacity. Depth, though, is what the offensive line needs. It's already lost Ryan Kelly to an injury, and there's no telling when the injury bug might hit again. With games against unranked Kentucky, Arkansas and Tennessee in the coming weeks, Hill should get plenty of reps to build on what's already been a solid start.
He may remain an under-the-radar player for the time being, but don't expect it to stay that way for long. We may not see all he has to offer now, but we're getting a glimpse of where he's headed.
"You couldn't ask for a guy [who] has better intangibles," Saban said. "When you have great intangibles, that's what helps you sort of accomplish whatever your goals are, whatever your vision is for what you want to do."
3dGreg Ostendorf and Alex Scarborough