Highlight film is notoriously useless for evaluating players since by its nature it’s focused on the best that the player can do and usually (although this seems to be changing, which I like) avoids their errors and weaknesses. Even with these limitations, there are things that stand out in the below video of new Denver Broncos running back Ronnie Hillman. Taken with the fourth pick in the third round after a move up the board, the selection of Hillman confounded a lot of Denver fans. It hasn’t taken long to see the potential advantages that he brings to the Broncos.
For one, his shorter natural height is benefited by his tendency to run with a good pad level. He does run high from time to time, and if that doesn't change in the NFL, he’ll get to deal with the consequences. However - if you look at the number of tackles that he breaks, you get an immediate impression that for a somewhat smaller, lighter player, this is a kid (and at only 20, he is still a kid) who runs with surprising power and authority. He’s skilled at obtaining yards after the catch and it’s hard to argue with his production of 36 TDs and 3,243 yards in only two years of college. I don’t care what conference he was in - that’s serious production.
Hillman didn’t have a ton of catches during his time at San Diego State, but you can see at the two-minute mark his ability to get open, to get yards after the catch, and to break tackles en route. He has good hands and if he can stay healthy - which is my sole concern with him, but which applies to much bigger backs as well - he’s likely to be on the other end of a lot of Peyton Manning passes.
The other thing that stood out to me was that Hillman showed unusually good vision and patience behind his blockers, while being very quick to find and burst through a crease. I don’t expect him to run through the tackles a great deal (although he, like Darren Sproles, can be surprisingly effective there at times) but the Broncos’ zone blocking scheme requires a running back who has both vision and patience, yet has the burst to take the hole when it opens up. Creases in zone blocking schemes often open and close in a partial second - only the best-suited backs can find and exploit them.
Willis McGahee has a skill there that is rarely noted, and he also has the size and power to break tackles, due to his powerful frame and his ability to keep his pad level while breaking through the line. That’s a rare combination. While Hillman is on the other end of that scale physically, he has much the same skills in terms of fitting the scheme. It was an issue I had substantial concerns about when Knowshon Moreno was drafted (he seemed to have the vision, but not patience combined with the ability to burst through the hole in a zone blocking scheme), but I think that Hillman has a much better chance of success when running the ball for exactly that reason.
It’s an odd thing, but some of the best zone blocking runners weren’t the top running backs in their draft - or even at times, at their college. To be successful in it, you have to trust the running system, not just try to improvise, juke and do all the things that elite running backs at the high school and college levels tend to learn to do from grade school on. One example of this was Correll Buckhalter - he wasn’t with Denver all that long, but he had the ability to maximize his production through the zone blocking scheme that led all Denver runners. It was a shame that Denver caught him towards the end of his often injury-plagued career - he was a natural for their blocking approach.
Perhaps the dumbest comment I read on Hillman was the complaint that his long runs somehow skewed his yards per carry numbers. You know what really skewed them (besides picking up a lot of yardage)? The number of tackles that guy either broke or avoided. You can watch game film or highlight film to see this - I watched both, and it didn’t matter. It’s not uncommon to watch him to break or run out of three or four tackles on any given play. When I was watching him play in college (Carlsbad, where I live, gets nearly all the SDSU games) I used to think that he was simply avoiding the tackles, but more film and closer observation suggested that it’s frequently the opposite. Hillman has, for his height, proportionally shorter legs and a longer torso. The shorter legs help keep his pad level down, and that longer torso of his seems double-jointed - he can angle, twist and turn it to avoid defenders while continuing to run at nearly full speed. That makes him even harder to bring down.
The long runs were created by a combination of factors that including good run blocking, good in-game coaching, and a heck of a lot of broken tackles. Did he avoid a lot of them as well? Sure, and that’s far from a bad thing. It will be harder in the NFL where they’ve usually seen it all before, but there’s no reason to think that he won’t adapt there as he did in college.
His 36 touchdowns in only two seasons doesn’t suggest that his numbers are skewed by much of anything - you might as well hold that his yardage totals stopped at the end zone line on all those TD runs, so that skewed his yardage totals against him. It’s absurd, but no more so than saying that his frequent long TD runs somehow left his stats inaccurate. His yards per carry, by the way, were 5.8 and 5.5 yards per attempt in his two years at SDSU. He also ranked fourth nationally with 1,711 rushing yards in 2011.
Hillman also made a substantial splash in Colorado when he was in college, driving the defenses at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs insane when they tried to stop him. In only two games against the Falcons he rang up 363 yards and four TDs. No matter what the defense tried to do to stop him, he wasn’t going to be slowed. Head Coach Troy Calhoun summed it up well:
This guy is a home run. And he could not be in an offense more suited to his talent than Denver’s.
Calhoun particularly recalls a running play right up the middle from 2010 that still confounds him:
Four guys (on one play) literally had great angles,and yet you were reaching (for air). You would be ready to put a face on him, and all of a sudden you’re grabbing air. All of a sudden he’s gone.
That brings out a point that could extend Hillman’s career. Although he’ll be regularly coached in keeping his pad level as low as possible, Hillman has a skill at angling his body while running at full speed that makes it very tough to hit him squarely. Sometimes it resulted in a missed tackle, sometimes a broken one, but it made bringing him down constantly problematic. It also minimized the amount of damage that his body took - and he was smart to come out of college with those kinds of numbers and 'low mileage’, especially at his size.
The ability to change directions with a minimal drop in speed is a skill that is unusual even in the lofty realms of NFL skill sets. Jerry Rice had that ability, and it drove cornerbacks, safeties and defensive coordinators insane. Many of the best of the best had and have it. to Hillman it comes naturally. That’s another reason that Denver is very high on this player - rather than planting and cutting to juke his way downfield, Hillman often just adjusts the angle of his torso briefly while continuing his runs. Air Force defensive coordinator Charlton Warren commented on that:
He can make guys miss in small spaces. He never really takes a big hit because he has a way of bending his body to elude tacklers.
That may be a saving grace in the NFL. So will the concepts of nutrition and body maintenance that are second nature to the elite NFL players. Hillman had a tendency to consider a double portion of Skittles as dinner in college. He put on 11 pounds this offseason that he says are just muscle, and noted that he didn’t do anything different in his training. He just started to eat like an adult. The Broncos' nutritionist will be putting together a full program for him. Adding that to the kind of regimen that Luke Richesson and Co. will be putting together for him, and he could easily add another five pounds of muscle. Successful 205-lb running backs aren’t uncommon in the NFL. DeAngelo Williams is 5-8 and 210 lb.; Darren Sproles is a genetic freak, but he’s also 5-6 and 180 lb, and he seems to play okay. Ahmad Bradshaw is 5-11 and 195 lb - a bit taller, thinner in build and extremely effective. Hillman’s injury history will be what it will be, but he’s hardly the most vulnerable player in the draft.
Although he lasted until the third round, the Broncos were far from convinced that he would. He was one of their top choices at running back, and they weren’t sure that they’d get him until the deed was done. Said John Elway of Hillman, via Andrew Mason:
We didn't think he'd be there in the bottom of the third (round) and with the phone calls we got after we drafted him, (we learned) that was true.
Had they tried to play the waiting game, he would have been gone. They moved up to get him, and if I’m reading this right, he found that they were right in doing so. It wasn’t going to happen for a lot of good reasons.
I also found this YouTube on his freshman year:
Several of the highlights are the same as in the first video (since he only played two seasons at SDSU), but I wasn’t bored watching them again. It’s just a lot of fun to watch him play, and I got the impression that watching him both running the ball and catching Peyton Manning passes isn’t going to be boring, either. You could watch this video just to see the broken tackle at the 0:20 mark - Hillman bounces off the defender like a pinball, essentially unaffected, and flies to the end zone. That’s power, balance and the ability to both angle his body and change direction at speed. In short, it’s why Denver wanted the guy.
I don’t hear much about him around the league, when people are talking about the Broncos' so-called ‘poor’ draft. You may hear a lot more about him next season - he’s that kind of player.
By the way, I was watching an NBA playoff game between the Lakers and the Nuggets recently and saw Kenneth Faried get knocked unconscious from a Kobe Bryant flagrant foul - his eyes were wide open and totally unfocused; he couldn’t make any verbal responses, had reduced balance when he could stand up and walk at all, but they just had him walk around for a minute or two and then shoot his free throws. I don’t think the NBA has gotten the memo on concussion management - it’s sad. Every pro athlete is susceptible to the effects of this problem. The NBA is blowing it, but that’s not news.
Bring on training camp!