MADISON — Asked about the tailback competition at the University of Wisconsin this spring, redshirt freshman P.J. Hill echoed his head coach’s sentiments.
“We all have our different styles,” Hill says early in his answer. He mentions speed. He mentions physical play.
Bret Bielema, in his first year at the Badgers’ helm, has often said this spring that he expects the tailback position to be a specialized position this year. UW has candidates with unique skills, players who can suit the Badgers’ needs in a variety of situations.
And yet, Bielema has also said that if a player emerges to take the position by the horns, that would be fine too.
“Everybody brings something different to the table, and I think that’s… how we all will fit into the playbook,” Hill said.
“We” refers to the quintet of tailbacks in the Badgers’ stable this spring, a diverse corps with a wide range of skills and precious little experience.
“Maybe this guy can do this on this down and this guy could do this on this down,” Hill continues. “But if we have one back that could do it all, then good for that guy.”
A coy smile spread across Hill’s face as he spoke this last sentence. Try as he might, he could not hide it. Perhaps, Hill feels he can be that do-it-all feature tailback?
Hill has reason to smile these days, after some inauspicious events. The beginning of a promising true freshman season abruptly ended with the fifth practice of fall training camp last year, when Hill broke his leg just above the ankle during a scrimmage. He returned to practice in December, but was not able to run full speed until midway through winter workouts, and he is still undergoing precautionary rehab after practices.
In February, Hill was suspended indefinitely, then reinstated about three weeks later, after he was arrested by university police and charged with disorderly conduct for allegedly wielding a bat in an altercation outside a campus dorm. Hill declined comment regarding that incident.
When spring opened, Hill was the No. 3 tailback, behind junior Jamil Walker and senior walk-on Dywon Rowan. After UW’s scrimmage April 8, Hill took over the top spot.
That obviously brings a smile to Hill’s face. One about as wide as Lake Mendota. Being in position to be the Badgers’ starting tailback as a redshirt freshman is a pretty good situation.
Said Hill: “Coming off of that injury and then working hard, and then spring ball showing that my injury didn’t affect me and then moving up. If feels real good.”
The tailback competition is far from a shut-and-close case. Hill (5-foot-11, 235 pounds), Rowan (5-9, 243) and Walker (6-2, 221) have been joined this spring by Hill’s classmates, Jerry Butler (5-9, 186) and Dion Foster (5-8, 216). All five indeed bring a distinct skill set to the field that UW could take advantage of this season.
Hill, however, has begun to separate himself from the pack. He has exceptional vision and power, and is a quality receiver out of the backfield. While he will never be confused for a sprint champion — in contrast to Butler and Walker — he has a somewhat surprising burst in the open field.
Does Hill see himself as a player who could be that complete, featured back?
“Yeah, I do,” he acknowledges. “My burst. I have that. I have hands, I play real physical. I have that agility, and so I think I could be that guy. I just have to keep working because I’m still young… There’s always room for improvement. So I just have to keep working if I want to be that guy.”
Needing to replace Brian Calhoun and Booker Stanley, all eyes are on what has traditionally been UW’s most important position.
In the fall, highly regarded tailback prospect Lance Smith (5-11, 190) will join the competition, as might athlete Josh Nettles (5-10, 171). This spring, though, the focus is on five players with almost as little collegiate experience. In two seasons, Walker has 198 yards and a touchdown on 44 carries. Rowan, who is only in his second spring practice season after transferring from Madison Area Technical College, had 13 carries for 34 yards and a touchdown last year. The other three, of course, are completing their first full academic year at UW.
All five have shown the potential this spring to be featured runners, but Hill has put the pieces together most frequently, and probably has the highest ceiling.
While recuperating from his injury last fall, Hill added 15 pounds, leading coaches and teammates to needle him about his weight. But Hill points out that his time in the 40-yard dash just prior to spring practices — 4.6 seconds — matched his time when he was 220 pounds in high school.
“Hey, since I’ve been playing football I’ve always been a big kid, you know, carrying my weight,” Hill said. “I don’t have no problem being big. I don’t want to get even bigger, but I play real physical and I have to have some cushion, some muscle just to bring it to the defense… As long as I can carry my weight, I feel comfortable.”
Hill has very good feet for a player with his build, and he is aggressive when he finds a seam.
“I don’t hesitate at all,” Hill said. “I see that hole, I hit it and I’m running strong, physical. If you are in the way, I’m knocking you over… I like to play the game real physical. It’s football. You’ve got to play physical.”
A native of East Elmhurst, N.Y., Hill has displayed a surprising penchant for pass catching, coming from a run-heavy Brooklyn Poly Prep program where he ran for more than 4,000 yards and 48 touchdowns but caught just one touchdown pass in three seasons as a letterwinner.
“In high school you do little drills” where you catch passes, Hill said. “I was pretty good at that. But in games, they didn’t really (pass the ball) because our team was more of a running team, not much of a passing team.
“But, hey, when it comes down to catching that ball, I’m going to catch that ball.”
If Hill continues to perform the way he has so far this spring, he will have a lot to smile about throughout the 2006 season.