Postcard from camp: Wisconsin
Streamlined RB Hill looking to avoid fatigue in 2007
Posted: Friday August 17, 2007 1:29PM; Updated: Tuesday August 21, 2007 6:44PM
MADISON, Wis. -- The skies opened on the morning of move-in day, a maddening rite of passage in Badgerland that marks the end of the 24-hour gap between the expiration and beginning of off-campus leases for the majority of University of Wisconsin students. As the UW football team opened its ninth day of fall camp inside the bubble at the Dave McClain Center, downtown Madison's residential blocks were dotted with temporarily homeless tribes of rain-drenched renters, milling around loaded trucks or guarding piles of budget furnishings -- futons, halogen lamps, IKEA shelving and the like.
Star running backs are not immune from the moving hassle, and so while sophomore P.J. Hill took reps in Wednesday's practice, he was storing his possessions in a U-Haul, readying to hop from one apartment complex in the shadows of Camp Randall to another just a block away, where he'll room with fullback Chris Pressley. "I like to be close to the stadium," Hill said, shortly after explaining how his daily home-to-high school trip -- from East Elmhurst, N.Y. in Queens to Bay Ridge's Brooklyn Prep -- required rising at 5:30 a.m. and took more than two hours, all so he could play for the best program in the five boroughs. Thus, at college, the Badgers' workhorse is affording himself the luxury of a brief commute.
This is not to say that Hill has become lazy as a 20-year-old. On the contrary, he has shedded noticeable bulk from the 242 pounds he was listed at last season, when he ran for 1,569 yards on 331 carries and was named Big Ten Freshman of the Year. He was a lovably large back in a state of large people, but within the team he'd frequently get ribbed with nicknames such as "Big Butt" or "Thunderthighs."
"People would say that I had the upper body of a wide receiver and the legs of a lineman," Hill recalled.
Now, UW head coach Bret Bielema says Hill is "more proportioned like a running back" -- an evening-out process that resulted from better dieting and workouts following shoulder surgery in January. When Hill left the field after morning practice (the Badgers worked out at 9:30 a.m. and 7:40 p.m. Wednesday) and stepped on the team's mandatory weigh-in scale outside the locker room, he was pleased with the digital readout: 226 lbs.
It's a weight that should allow Hill, Bielema said, "if not to be faster, to at least be faster for longer [periods of time]." Hill's durability was a major concern in 2006. He averaged 146.5 yards in the Badgers' first eight games, but only 79.4 while battling injuries in their final five. His season closed on a down note, with a 19-carry, 36-yard effort in the Badgers' win over Arkansas in the Capital One Bowl. Hill's physical M.O. -- "I like to pound on defenders, instead of letting them pound on me," he said, "because if you keep hitting them, they'll change the way they approach you" -- is both an asset and a potentially health-hampering burden, so in the interest of surviving '07, Hill plans on slightly altering his running style. There will be less contact, he said, merely for the sake of making contact.
What won't change this season is Wisconsin's heavy reliance on the running game, the effectiveness of which directly correlated to the outcome. It was no coincidence that Hill's three sub-60-yard Saturdays in '06 included the Badgers' lone loss, to Michigan, a near-disaster at Illinois and the bowl-game nail-biter against the Razorbacks. Following that 12-1 campaign in Bielema's rookie year as head coach, the Badgers are viewed as darkhorse national title contenders with a few glaring questions on offense: Namely, that they don't have a stud to replace steady veteran QB John Stocco, but are rather choosing between two serviceable options, senior Tyler Donovan and Kansas State transfer Allan Evridge (more on this later). Given that instability in the passing game, it's difficult to envision Wisconsin sitting undefeated atop the Big Ten without Hill putting himself in Heisman contention.
To pull off such a campaign, Hill and the Badgers must avoid peaking too soon -- especially not prior to their brutal back-to-back dates with Ohio State and Michigan on the first two weekends in November. Hill has, to a degree, been protected in camp. He missed all of spring practice recovering from surgery and gets reduced reps in the team's full-pads scrimmage situations. At the end of one of the runs he was allowed under Camp Randall's lights Wednesday night, Hill cut to avoid colliding with safety Aubrey Pleasant after the play was blown dead, lost his footing and fell rather harmlessly to the turf. This drew immediate cackling from the defense.
Pleasant, a first-year starter with a veteran's mouth, began yelling, "Stay up, P.J.! Stay up!" It was merely trash talk, but it could have been mistaken as a rallying cry for their re-shaped running back. For UW to end a seven-year tour of the Big Ten's lesser bowls and make the jump to the BCS, Hill must remain, for the entire season, a force on his feet.