Aug. 25, 2009
By MOISEKAPENDA BOWER
For Justin Hill, the move from tailback to linebacker was more about acceptance than acquiescence and less about resistance than reluctance.
The reticence in Hill's eyes when he was first asked to shift positions last September has been replaced by a ray of excitement born of support and success. Hill no longer purses his lips when discussing his place on defense. Instead, he is the picture of sincerity when the topic turns to tackling.
"Some of the guys were joking around because all the running backs got hurt (saying), `They're going to move you back,'" Hill said with a laugh. "Honestly, I'd probably be upset if they moved me back because I'm starting to like it."
It took some coaxing for Hill, a junior from Corinth, to reach the point of embracing his new role. While Hill did not publicly sulk when he was moved from tailback prior to the Owls' trip to Vanderbilt last year, his body language offered clear indication that he wasn't fond of the move.
Hill paced the Owls with 321 rushing yards as a freshman in 2007, but injuries forced Hill to surrender his position on the depth chart during the offseason. By the time the 2008 campaign kicked off, Hill was out of the rotation. Anxious to reclaim his starting role, Hill accelerated his rehab in order to be available for the third game of the season only to watch starting linebackers Brian Raines and Vernon James go down against Memphis in Week 2. Hill played both linebacker and tailback at Lake Dallas High School, and while he signed with Rice in part because he was offered a chance to develop exclusively on tailback, Hill donned the white practice jersey of the defense and initiated his crash course.
The results were mixed. Hill thrived on special teams, showcasing a tenacity that is emblematic of exceptional linebackers. However, the learning curve was too steep at the position, and Hill failed to make an impact defensively. He switched back to tailback late in the season, but with C.J. Ugokwe entrenched in the backfield, Hill drifted through a lost sophomore season. One offseason surgery and one spring of watching the Owls from the sidelines later, Hill reconsidered a permanent switch.
"Last fall was difficult because like Coach D (Owls co-defensive coordinator/linebackers coach Chuck Driesbach
) said, it was like walking into a movie that was halfway over," Hill said. "My head was spinning then. To think of where I am now, it's like night and day."
Credit senior linebacker Terrance Garmon for being a stabilizing force. When Hill initially made the move last fall, Garmon organized teaching sessions at his apartment with pool balls representing personnel. Those classes enabled Hill to grasp the basics of the Owls' 4-2-5 scheme, so when Hill sought additional tutelage this spring, he was a step ahead.
Garmon, the Owls' most experienced linebacker, continued to share all that he had absorbed adjusting to the scheme between his freshman and sophomore seasons. Intuitively, Hill connected with the ideal mentor.
"I remember going through this for the last year and a half to two years. It's been a long process," Garmon said. "For me it was slow learning. I've tried to tell him what I'm thinking so hopefully he'll pick it up in his own way or he'll use my way and what I picked up and use that to his advantage of not having to think about other ways to think about stuff."
Added Hill: "Terrance and (Owls senior linebacker) Robert (Calhoun) and all the other guys have been doing a great job encouraging me."
Bolstered by the support, Hill has crept up the depth chart by combining his athleticism with his burgeoning knowledge of the defense. He built on the original instructions provided by Driesbach - "go tackle the ball" - and is progressively eliminating the alignment and assignment errors that draw Driesbach's ire. Furthermore, Hill is displaying a passion for the position that he sorely lacked during his first tour of duty, and that attitude adjustment has validated the original notion to move Hill in '08.
Now, when Driesbach heaps additional reps on his plate, Hill shoulders the load with a smile, a genuine grin reflecting a renewed state of bliss.
"He came over here this summer and started with a great attitude, and he has been fabulous, absolutely wonderful, better than I ever hoped for," Driesbach said. "Smart, into it, physical, making plays - just very, very excited about where he is. And there's only upside.
"He's still making some mistakes, but the movement and toughness and how fast he has accelerated himself with understanding what to do just puts him in a position to where, right now, I'm leaning towards starting him. That's how much he's advanced."
Said Hill: "I can find the ball a lot easier and I'm running around a lot faster. I feel comfortable. The more and more I practice, the more I get familiar with the position."