Versatile Hillis latest Denver RB standout
Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson
They simply liked Hillis as a football player. They liked him as an under-the-radar tailback. But they didn't think of him as a starter in the NFL. They liked him equally well as a soft-handed fullback who could be a receiving threat out of the backfield. They also liked him as a potential H-back. The Broncos looked at the big, fast kid from Arkansas who was best known as the lead blocker for Darren McFadden and Felix Jones and they saw a Dallas Clark-like player.
Denver saw a lot they liked in a player they had a fourth-round grade on. When Hillis was still available in the seventh round, Denver -- which thought it had solved its need at running back in the fifth round by taking Arizona State rookie Ryan Torain -- jumped at the chance to take him. They didn't know where they'd play him, but they knew they got a good player.
With four games remaining in the season and a playoff berth looming for the 7-5 Broncos -- whose magic number to win the AFC West is two heading into Sunday's home game against the Kansas City Chiefs -- Hillis has become much more than a good football player.
He has become a savior of their offense. If not for Hillis, the balanced attack for which Denver is famous wouldn't be possible.
After season-ending injuries to Torain, Michael Pittman, Andre Hall, Anthony Alridge and an injury to Selvin Young, the Broncos broke the emergency glass and inserted Hillis in the lineup as a tailback. They had no other choice.
And he has been flourishing.
"We knew he was an athlete when he first stepped foot here in Denver, the way he can catch the ball and the way he can run with the ball, we knew we had somebody special," Broncos wide receiver Brandon Marshall told reporters in the locker room Thursday. "There definitely hasn't been a dropoff at running back since he's been back there."
The Broncos are used to this type of sudden impact at this position. Denver has had nine running backs rush for 100 yards in a game since 2004, the most in the NFL.
Hillis has made an instant impact. His rushing totals increased in each of his past four games. He had 129 yards on the ground in Denver's 34-17 road upset over the Jets on Sunday. He is averaging 4.8 yards a carry and he has four rushing scores.
With McFadden struggling all season because of turf toe injuries and Jones done for the season in Dallas, the lead blocker for the two first-round picks from Arkansas is stealing the show in the NFL. Hillis' early success after an obscure college existence reminds some in the NFL of the situation Brandon Jacobs endured while at Auburn. He was overshadowed by Ronnie Brown and Carnell Williams before he transferred to Southern Illinois. Now Jacobs is making a for himself.
Hillis, 22, is certainly making a name for himself in Denver. His teammates love the happy runner with that lovable southern twang. Hillis won over his teammates in Cleveland on Nov. 6 when he converted a first down on fourth-and-short with a second-effort run. The play ignited a Denver comeback that was the spark to a streak in which the Broncos have won three of four games despite all of the injuries at tailback and on defense.
"I'm just glad I have come in here and fit in," Hillis said. "I think some people might be surprised but I feel like I'm a versatile guy who could come in here and help and I hope that's what I'm doing."
The Broncos are winning and Hillis, who is 6 feet 2 and 250 pounds, is a big reason why. Quarterback Jay Cutler said Hillis, who has 4.5 speed, is a perfect Denver running back.
"I think this running scheme is kind of designed for him," Cutler said. "It is one cut, get downhill, get your five or six yards and every once in a while you can break a 30- or 40-yarder if you get up on the safeties. He has done a good job. He is a smart kid, and I think we have used him effectively. We have tried to play off his strengths. We haven't put him in the position where we have had to ask him to do things he can't do. He has stepped up to the challenge and has been fun to watch."
The Broncos aren't necessarily looking at Hillis as a stopgap answer at tailback. There are those in the Denver organization who believe he will have a role as a tailback next season. The team also likes Torain and he will get a chance to play when he recovers from a knee injury. And it wouldn't be a surprise if Denver added a veteran. But there will be room for Hillis.
"He has proven that he can play tailback," Broncos coach Mike Shanahan said."He is better with the ball in his hands at the tailback position running the football or catching the pass out of the backfield. He is going to get a chance to play more tailback because of what he has done and how he can break tackles."
Hillis, a star high school tailback in Arkansas, wasn't expecting the chance to be a running back in the NFL, but he isn't ready to let it go, either.
"I hope I get to continue to play tailback," Hillis said. "But I'll do anything the team wants me to do."
And that's exactly why the Broncos drafted him in the first place.