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Healthy Hill heating up for Badgers

9/12/2008

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

The ice makers in Madison, Wis., could be in for a rough couple months.

One of their top customers no longer needs their services.

"After a game, I used to be in the training room with like six ice packs on," Wisconsin junior running back P.J. Hill said. "Now, I haven't been up to one."

An injury-free offseason is the primary reason. Hill hadn't had one until this past year.

He broke his tibia in preseason camp in 2005 and underwent shoulder surgery following the 2006 season, limiting his ability to make strides during the winter, spring and summer. Though Hill entered this fall with monster numbers in two seasons -- 2,805 rushing yards and 29 touchdowns on 544 carries -- there were doubts about his durability.

Those have gone away, and both Hill and Wisconsin's trainers are seeing the difference.

"They got tired of my face," Hill said. "They're not my best friends any more."

Opposing defenders are getting tired of seeing the back of Hill's helmet this season. He opened by rushing for 210 yards against Akron, eclipsing the 3,000-yard mark for his career. He added two touchdowns last week against Marshall.

The 236-pound junior leads the Big Ten and ranks 13th nationally in rushing average. He'll need another big performance Saturday night as No. 10 Wisconsin makes a perilous trip to face 21st-ranked Fresno State (ESPN2, 10:30 p.m. ET).

"He's playing as good a football as I've seen him play," coach Bret Bielema said this week. "Physically, he's at a level he hasn't been previously."

Hill is making sure he stays there. In addition to the offseason work, Hill is making better decisions on game day in the interest of self preservation.

"I'm a very physical back, and my first year, when I first came in, I was a guy that just looked for contact and never held anything back," he said. "But as I got more experience, I realized taking a lot of hits takes a toll on my body, and I wanted to be smart about the contact. If I didn't need to take a hit, I wouldn't take a hit.

"I actually do feel fresher in the games. I feel like I've got a little extra burst to my step."

He also has help behind him in sophomore Zach Brown and redshirt freshman John Clay, both of whom average more than 60 rushing yards a game. Brown filled in well behind Hill last season and Clay is considered the team's back of the future.

There's plenty of buzz around Clay, a 6-2, 237-pound bruiser who is home grown (Racine) and ranked among the nation's top prep running backs. But Hill doesn't feel like he's losing popularity.

"They [fans] can see him in there because he is from Wisconsin, and he's a very talented back with a lot of ability that can do something," Hill said. "But [when] I'm in there, they still show me love like they haven't forgotten about me. I don't feel like I have to prove anything to anybody."

So far Hill has been taking about half of the carries, with Brown and Clay splitting the other 50 percent. Before each game Hill and offensive coordinator Paul Chryst conduct a negotiation of sorts about carry distribution.

"He always asks me how many carries I want," Hill said. "Then I'll say like 25 or something like that. And to him, that means 14. So if I do something with that 14, then he'll get me up to my 25. One time I told him 32, and he said, 'That means 16 or 17.'"

If Hill keeps up this pace, Chryst might have no choice but to give the back exactly what he wants.