Wednesday, November 7, 2012
The long climb of Jeremy Hill
By David Helman
Jeremy Hill sat in a folding chair, taking in the spectacle mostly unattended.
The throngs of reporters that descend on LSU media day every August had questions for fellow running backs Michael Ford and Spencer Ware, the Tigers' top two rushers in 2011. And there was plenty of attention for Alfred Blue, the soon-to-be starter, and Kenny Hilliard, the young gun who scored eight touchdowns without notching a start the season before.
|Jeremy Hill rushed for 124 yards and two touchdowns against South Carolina.|
The spotlight didn't fall much on Hill, who entered 2012 as LSU's N0. 5 and only unproven option at running back -- a tall order for anyone to overcome, even the all-time leading rusher at Baton Rouge's Redemptorist High School.
"I bring a lot of things [to the team] like receiving the ball out of the backfield and picking up linebacker blitzes. My vision is getting better -- with the more reps I get my vision will start picking up," Hill said then. "But at the same time all those other guys can do all those same things just as good as me if not better. I just have to continue to force myself to keep doing all the little things right and just push myself to become a better back."
Flash forward to this past weekend. With a career-high 29 carries, Hill quadrupled the total number of touches of any other LSU running back on his way to 107 yards and a touchdown in the 21-17 loss to Alabama. It was the third-straight 100-yard game for the Tigers' new hot hand, as well as his fifth touchdown in that same span.
"I'm settling down out there, but I was excited," Hill said Saturday night. "Alabama was the challenge you come to LSU for."
It certainly has been a challenge, as Hill has emerged as the team's leading rusher just a month after a September that saw him touch the ball just 13 times in the first six games.
"He's a real talented guy, and he's still finding his way through a lot of things in the offense, and it feels good to play with him," said offensive guard La'El Collins', Hill's friend and high school teammate at Redemptorist.
Of course, there have been greater challenges than playing time for the 6-foot-2, 235-pound bruiser. Before he burned the South Carolina secondary or trucked over Crimson Tide defenders, Hill was most notable for nearly losing his shot at that level of football. In January 2011, one month before his class' national signing day, Hill was arrested and charged with oral sexual battery for an incident that happened in 2010.
His eventual signing with LSU took a backseat to his legal future, which wouldn't be resolved until a year later when he pleaded guilty to carnal knowledge of a juvenile -- a misdemeanor -- and enrolled for the spring semester.
"Jeremy has had some experiences that have allowed him to mature very quickly -- off-the-field experiences," said LSU coach Les Miles when asked about his freshman's rapid rise.
In the meantime, Hill finished school at home while he waited for the legal process to play out. The day-to-day grind of high school paled in comparison to the uncertainty and isolation of his new situation.
"You kind of take it for granted -- you hate waking up for school in the morning, but after a month or so you miss going to school. You kind of miss having to do the little things that everyone hates doing -- going to class and things of that nature," Hill said. "I kind of had to force myself to wake up most mornings and run a couple of miles, get a lift in and do some footwork drills."
At LSU, Collins, by then a freshman, kept in contact to help his teammate stay focused. With the competition at a powerhouse like LSU, there was no doubt Hill would be behind the eight ball upon enrolling.
"I stayed in touch with him and never stopped talking to him. We stayed close and saw each other a lot, and I just kind of let him know what to look out for when he gets here," Collins said.
Hill is averaging 21 carries per game for 122 yards since his explosion Oct. 13 against South Carolina. His nearest competitors, Ford and Ware, are averaging just seven touches for 44 yards and nine for 30 yards, respectively.
Despite that, Miles isn't convinced that Hill has reached the summit. The Tigers averaged less than three yards per carry against Alabama despite Hill's big numbers, and that's something the head coach said falls partly on the ball carrier.
"He still needs to develop. There were some opportunities for him to have played better in that game, so we're still teaching and still improving," he said.