Tuesday, August 21, 2007
Wisconsin's biggest back throwing his weight around
By Mark Schlabach ESPN.com
CHICAGO -- When Wisconsin redshirt sophomore P.J. Hill told his mother he was losing weight this spring to become a sleeker, faster and more powerful running back, Pamela Moss had no doubt her son would do it.
Regardless of the obstacles, Hill always has accomplished whatever was required to excel in football. When he was 8, Hill locked himself in the boiler room of his family's apartment building and dressed himself in plastic bags to sweat off extra pounds. In high school, he commuted two hours each day to attend Brooklyn's Poly Prep to get a better education and more exposure to college recruiters.
A slimmed-down P.J. Hill is hoping to evade even more would-be tacklers in '07.
"It was always a struggle for him," Moss recalled.
Perhaps no struggle was as big as overcoming the obstacles Hill faced to play football for the first time. At 8, Hill tipped the scales at 145 pounds. The weight limit for the local Pop Warner League was 120. Despite spending hours in the boiler room before each game, Hill couldn't make the weight. Finally, after coaches made Hill strip to his underwear before a game to make the required weight, his mother had seen enough.
"Put your clothes back on," Moss told her son. "We're not going to do this."
"No, Mama," Hill told her. "I'm going to do it."
Hill made the weight and would-be tacklers have been paying a high price ever since.
A bruising running back, Hill is like an SUV without turn signals. He prefers to run over defenders rather than run around them and rarely takes the brunt of the collision. At one point during a Pop Warner game, Parrish Hill pulled his son to the sideline and scolded him for trying to hit everything in his way.
"I've been talking to him about that ever since he's been playing football," Parrish Hill said. "One time, a safety put his head down 5 yards in front of him because he was anticipating the tackle. Instead of running around him, P.J. tried to run over him. The guy stuck out his arm and tackled him.
"I told P.J., 'All you're thinking about is running the guy over. We know you can do that! You've got to fake and run around him.'"
Hill never got the message and never really needed to heed his father's advice while playing at Poly Prep. He ran for 4,012 yards and 48 touchdowns in high school and was named a finalist for New York City Player of the Year. But because of his waist line and perceived lack of speed, most college recruiters stayed away. By his senior year, Hill had scholarship offers from Buffalo, Indiana, Wisconsin and Vanderbilt.
Hill chose the Badgers partly because of 1999 Heisman Trophy winner Ron Dayne, another jumbo-sized back, who became the all-time leading runner in NCAA Division I-A history with 7,125 yards. When Hill arrived in Madison, Wis., two years ago, comparisons to Dayne were inevitable.
"I don't like to be compared to anyone, although that's a good guy to be compared to," Hill said. "Everybody wants to have their own running style. I don't want people to say I run like Ron Dayne. I want them to say he runs like P.J. Hill."
Hill was on his way to playing as a freshman in 2005, until he broke his leg during preseason camp. Hill gained more weight while redshirting as a freshman and came into last season weighing 242 pounds.
But Hill carried the excess weight well. He ran for 130 yards and a touchdown in his debut against Bowling Green, the first of three consecutive 100-yard rushing games to start his college career. Hill ran for 249 yards, including a 60-yard touchdown, in a 41-9 win over Northwestern, one of eight games with 100 rushing yards or more.
By season's end, Hill had run for 1,569 yards and 15 touchdowns, the sixth highest single-season total in Wisconsin history. Hill led Division I-A freshmen in rushing and was eighth in the country overall with 120.7 yards per game.
Even Dayne, now a running back with the Houston Texans, was impressed.
"I spoke to him," Hill said. "He's a good guy. He said he had a lot of people telling him I was like his little brother. He said if he could help me with my game, he would do it."
Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema, who coached against Dayne while working as linebackers coach at Iowa from 1996-99, said he doesn't believe Dayne and Hill are all that similar.
"If Ron Dayne was from Texas and had played at Illinois, I don't think that comparison would ever come about," Bielema said. "But because he's from New Jersey and he played at Wisconsin, people automatically assume these things. They're really two different backs.
"The part that jumps out about P.J. early on, in my opinion, was the breakaway speed he has. He has really, really good hands and we can use him [as a receiver]. Everybody knows P.J. scored the opening touchdown against Michigan a year ago. What they forget, it was this little underneath route that was about a 4-yard completion that turned into a touchdown. So there's a little difference right there."
Hill will look much less like Dayne this season. After being on the wrong end of two vicious tackles in a 30-24 win over Illinois last season, Hill was left with a neck injury that hampered him the rest of the season. He ran for 148 yards the following week against Penn State, but failed to gain 100 in each of the last three games.
Hill underwent surgery on his right shoulder Feb. 1 and missed all of the Badgers' spring practices. The 5-foot, 11-inch Hill spent most of his time running, which dropped his weight from 242 to 223 during the offseason.
"I'm getting more toned and everything is coming into place," Hill said. "It looks like I'm getting smaller, but I'm finally confident about where my body is at."
Bielema and running backs coach John Settle have encouraged Hill to take on fewer tacklers this season to prevent wear and tear on his body, the same message his father tried to deliver more than a decade ago.
"I don't think you try to change his running style, but it's a mind-set," Settle said. "I think he's probably still going to take guys on, but you try to show him examples of how to try to set people up, where it's not a direct hit. You don't want to take his aggressiveness away by telling him not to do this or that."
Settle said he has been impressed by Hill's running so far in the Badgers' preseason camp.
"I've been very pleased with him," Settle said. "He shows more of a burst this year than he did last year. I think he feels better and the players realize we have a much better P.J. Hill now."
Even if there's less of him.
Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at email@example.com.