LSU running back Jeremy Hill didn't mind the in-game chatter scattered throughout last week's 17-6 win over Florida. He yapped and fought back with his churning tree trunk legs and ferocious effort.
After the final whistle, Hill got the last word, becoming the only running back this season to rush for 100 yards (121) on the Gators' top-ranked rush defense. Hill bulldozed his way to 6.4 yards per carry, as well.
Through six games this season, Hill is third in the SEC with 715 rushing yards. He's also tied for third in the FBS with nine rushing touchdowns in 2013. According to ESPN Stats & Information, over the last 10 seasons, only Charles Scott (10 in 2008) had more rushing touchdowns through seven games for LSU.
Hill has crossed the century mark in rushing four times this season and has proven to be one the SEC's best players at the midpoint of the season.
"Jeremy's played fantastic this year," quarterback Zach Mettenberger said.
"The whole world is seeing the hard work he put in and how much it's paying off right now."
Hill has been fun to watch, but there were times over the summer when he didn't think he'd back on the playing field for LSU.
Already on probation for pleading guilty in January 2012 to misdemeanor carnal knowledge of a juvenile, an April arrest almost took everything away.
Hill was arrested outside a Baton Rouge bar for punching a man from behind on April 27. A cell phone video captured the incident, and Hill was charged with simple battery. He also violated his probation and was suspending from the team indefinitely by head coach Les Miles.
Hill was reinstated to the team in August after a judge opted to extend his probation instead of giving him jail time. He sat out the opener against TCU, but made his debut a week later against UAB with six carries for 50 yards and a touchdown.
Every carry, catch, juke and stiff-arm stands as a constant reminder that it could all vanish instantly.
"I realized how blessed I was to have the opportunity," Hill said. "I definitely felt relieved and blessed at the time and that's the mentality that I go out there with every time I go out on the field.
"I have to go out there and give it my all."
Hill enjoyed a breakout 2012 season in which he rushed for 755 yards and 12 touchdowns in 11 games, but was a castaway after a dumb decision that left a man injured and Hill in trouble with the law again. Hill said there were moments in which he thought his football career at LSU was over. He was away from the team for three months and was forced into the life of a regular student.
Hill attended summer classes, earning two A's and a B, and could only work out at the gym on campus. With the offseason workout plan ingrained in his head, Hill tried duplicating a day in LSU's weight room each time he lifted.
"Trying to get myself in the best shape possible, in my mind got me through it," Hill said.
Hill's devotion to training didn't surprise his teammates, Mettenberger said, and neither did his impressive start to the season. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Hill ranks third in the SEC with 284 yards after contact. Against Florida, Hill had 28 yards after contact, 30 against Georgia and 89 against Auburn. Hill has forced 11 missed tackles by defenders this season, including eight in conference play.
Hill might have the build of a downhill runner, but he's incredibly athletic, shaking guys in an instant.
"Teams are going to try and take the run game away so I have to have learn to make people miss because anybody can just run the ball and get tackled, but to be special and unique, you have to go out there and make guys miss," Hill said.
"The great ones can make people miss and that's the mentality that all running backs that grow up have."
To Mettenberger, he just expects big plays when Hill touches the ball.
"It's not what if he breaks one off or what if he jumps over a dude like he did in the Florida game -- something freakish," Mettenberger said. "It's more of a ‘when' feeling. Every time we call a run or check into a run, everybody knows to keep their eye on Jeremy because at any moment he could break it 80 yards or run a dude over or high step, juke somebody, or jump over somebody. The guy is a freak athlete and really special to be around every day in practice."
The baggage Hill carried into the season has weighed down his image. He understands that people don't believe he deserves to play and see his off-field arrest and pre-college incident involving a sexual relationship with a minor before they see him.
Hill assures it doesn't serve as a distraction. He acts differently when he's out and understands that his LSU uniform never truly comes off when he's away from the field.
When he's on the field, he's in his safe haven, and he's just happy to be back there.
"It's always been important to him, but it's more important to him now," Miles said. "He realizes those opportunities to step on the field and play in Tiger Stadium and recognizes them as being very, very special."