Wisconsin Junior running back P.J. Hill has declared for the 2009 NFL draft. Hill, at 5'11 and 236 pounds, has already begun training for February's NFL scouting combine. When Wisconsin redshirt sophomore P.J. Hill told his mother he was losing weight this last spring to become a more agile and powerful running back to win favor in the draft, Pamela Moss had no doubt her son would do it.
Regardless of the obstacles he has faced in life, it seems Hill always has accomplished whatever was required to excel in life and in football. His family tell the story that since he was heavy as a youngster, 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 greater exposure to college recruiters.
At age 8, Hill had grown to 145 pounds. The weight limit for the local Pop Warner League was 120. Despite spending hours in that 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.
A powerful, bruising running back, Hill’s style has all the subtlety of a demolition derby entry. 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. He said, "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 heeded his father's advice while playing at Poly Prep. He never needed to.
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 top end speed, some college recruiters stayed away. A good student whose commute to a top prep school had increased his value, 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.
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 that year. 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 his freshman 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.
His coach Brett Bielema, after that 12-1freshman season said, “I know this much: When you watch film you know that PJ loves to win, loves to compete… and a lot of times when the deciding moment or deciding incident comes where you have to slide or get out of bounds or take a hit, PJ, he chose to hit. ”
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."
In addition to his broken leg and some smaller injuries, after being on the wrong end of two vicious tackles in a 30-24 win over Illinois his sophomore 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. Adept at adapting to changes, Hill decided to emphasize running, which dropped his weight from 242 to 223 during the offseason. That's when he confirmed his choice to his mama.
"I'm getting more toned and everything is coming into place," Hill said before his junior year. "It looks like I'm getting smaller, but I'm finally confident about where my body is at." It worked. In 2008, Hill earned honorable mention All-Big Ten honors and rushed for 1,161 yards and 13 touchdowns.
He is one of only two players in Badger history to run for at least 1,000 yards in each of their first three seasons (Along with former Bronco Ron Dayne). Hill is tied for second on UW’s all-time touchdowns list with 44 and ranks third in school history with 20 career 100-yard performances in only 3 seasons. Hill ranks third on Wisconsin's career rushing list with 3,996 total yards and 42 touchdowns. Hill averaged 5.2 yards per carry throughout his career, often playing through the injuries that occurred because of his bruising style of play. He has 3,802 career rushing yards, which puts him third on the school's all-time list and within reach of Anthony Davis, who has 4,676 yards in second place should he change his mind and drop out of the draft. Dayne still tops the list with 7,125 yards.
The 236-pound Hill has size, heart and power. The big questions are whether he is fast enough to make it in the NFL,and whether he has the hands to be an NFL level receiver. At least two other factors make it worth considering.
The first is that running backs have notoriously short NFL careers. The thinking is most backs have a limited number of carries in their legs. Hill has already taken a pounding with 755 career carries. The second is that Hill has been excellent in pass protection.
Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. He said, “I think Hill has a puncher's chance of making it in the NFL. A lot of his draft prospects will hinge on what scouts think of his speed and the injuries he's suffered. He's also going to have show more potential as a receiver than he was allowed to show in Wisconsin's offense.”
His coach disagreed. After his freshman year, although Hill was rarely used as a receiver (a fact that went on during his next two years), Bielema had this to say, "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 [that way]. 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."
Currently, Hill is projected as a mid to lower round pick ,or possibly even a FA acquisition. Even so, a gutsy power runner with the ability to pass block well and who might have good hands will probably find a home in the NFL. Even if it’s not for long.