Falcons’ Brian Hill gets his shot at being ‘The Guy’

The Falcons Brian Hill scores in style last week against New Orleans. (Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images/TNS)
Caption
The Falcons Brian Hill scores in style last week against New Orleans. (Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images/TNS)

Credit: Chris Graythen

Credit: Chris Graythen

Ah, youthful bluster. Harness it, and you could power entire cities.

In 2017, Brian Hill may have been coming out of one of those frontier college programs – Wyoming. And he may have been the 15th player drafted at his position. Still, Hill insisted at the time that the Falcons “got the best running back in the draft in the fifth round.”

Years pass. Intentions give way to deeds. Now four backs from the Class of ’17 are among the 10 top NFL rushers this season – Minnesota’s Dalvin Cook (1), Carolina’s Christian McCaffery (2), Jacksonville’s Leonard Fournette (6) and Indy’s Marlon Mack (9). Throw New Orleans’ Alvin Kamara and Green Bay’s Aaron Jones into that mix. It was a very good year for legs.

And Hill? He has been cut twice. He has done his time in the halfway house of the practice squad. Been plucked from Atlanta, going somewhere far worse – Cincinnati, toward the close of ’17 – and returned to take his Mulligan with the Falcons in 2018 after the Bengals cut him. He has cobbled together 295 career rushing yards in the NFL while keeping himself viable on special teams.

He’s here today, unbowed, to say, “I was one of the backs at the top of my class coming out of college, had a few bumps in the road, but there is no reason I can’t get back up to that.”

That is exactly the spirit the Falcons will require of their next man up this weekend. Devonta Freeman is out again, this time with a bad foot. Ito Smith is lost to concussion. So, step on up Mr. Hill and be pivotal to the Falcons’ running game.

On the other side Sunday, it just so happens that he’ll be matched against a fellow member of the draft class of 2017, Carolina’s McCaffery, who if healthy is on the field more than the yard lines.

“I’m very excited. I was humbled after the first two cuts. I’m just happy all the hard work has paid off,” Hill said.

As if he is not geeked up enough on his own, his Falcons position coach added to the emotional carbonation when the two talked Thursday morning. “I told him, are you ready? It’s your shot, let’s go get it. This is what you live for,” Bernie Parmalee said.

Because he has had such a difficult time convincing the league that he deserves membership, Hill has only offered teasing glances of his capabilities. Stepping in last week at New Orleans after Freeman was hurt, he had 61 yards on 20 carries and, more important, a touchdown catch. In his one shining moment last season, he had a 60-yard run against Carolina, and 115 yards total for the game.

He is a case study in the Falcons “Plan D” program, D as in development. What he showed against the Saints and whatever he demonstrates going forward will be the product of all those extra minutes after practice spent on adding substance to his game. Turns out he didn’t just fall out of bed as one of the top backs in his draft class, as planned.

“You take time (after practice) to work on something that you need to work on,” said Hill, explaining how the plan works. “I’d go work on special teams and hands all the time. Make sure I’m catching the ball fluidly out of the backfield – that was my weakness.”

How many extra practice passes has he caught the past couple of years? “Too many to count,” Hill answered. “It’s all worth it. Put in the work, and it’s going to come in on game day when it really counts.”

"I think he's ready," Parmalee said. "I always tell him, everyone wants to be the guy. If you say you're the guy, at some point you're going to have to show somebody. When you're op (opportunity) comes, what are you going to do with that op?

"I believe you can be the guy. You believe it. Now you got to show it."

Added Falcons head man, Dan Quinn, “We’ve seen all this growth happen, and when you see that, you really get pumped for a guy. (Hill) took his own game to a new space. We have a lot of trust and belief in him. He’s definitely ready for the challenge.”

In one way or another, Hill has been looking for his place in this football-playing world since just about forever.

A kid growing up in East St. Louis, Ill.,  – not a place known for its stately mansions and courtly manners – he had far more interest in staying inside bathing in the glow of virtual games than venturing out to play real ones. His mother, wisely sensing that a youngster in East St. Louis needed something constructive to occupy his time, bribed him to play youth football. Here’s the deal: $10 for every touchdown, $5 for every sack. It was an offer he couldn’t refuse.

“I ended up scoring so much that I never got paid,” he laughed. “And I grew to love the game.”

So, mom still owes him? “I think we’re even. No, not even. I think I still owe her,” he said in his best good-son delivery.

His mailbox obviously was not stuffed with recruiting brochures, or Hill would not have ventured to the wilds of Wyoming. It wasn’t like he had this sudden urge to immerse himself in the rodeo.

“No cowboy boots. No hats. No square dancing. I didn’t really immerse myself in the culture. Nah, I went there to play football,” he said.

That part he mastered, as in three seasons between 2014-16 he established Cowboys career records in rushing yards (4,287) and rushing touchdowns (35). In 2016, he went for a season-record 1,860 yards. Little wonder he thought himself among the crème de la crème around that time.

Ah, but there are some differences between the Mountain West Conference and the NFL. And Hill learned these the hard way, getting let go twice along the way to his appointment in Carolina on Saturday.

His fallback plan in case the NFL didn’t pan out was not to depend upon a fallback plan. “It was just work harder because you’ve got to make the football work at the end of the day,” he said.

The player who was drafted and the player now are two quite different sorts, Hill said. He’ll often refer to being humbled since that draft-day declaration.

“I don’t know if I needed it to happen, but it definitely happened after getting cut,” he said. “It just made me work harder.

As to what he knows now that he didn’t know then, Hill said: “Probably how important every play is. Coming out of college I was in probably every offensive play, so it’s easy to take a play off. You can’t do that in the NFL. I learned that watching Free (Freeman) and Tevin (Coleman) my first year, just the effort they put out every play.”

His position coach said he had no doubts about the back the Falcons saw the second time around.

“I knew it was going to happen, just being around him,” Parmalee said. “I know what type of person he is, and it was important to him. You can tell those guys when it’s important to them. You start seeing the progress a little at a time, a little at a time.

“And he’s going to get even better than he is now.”

Hill’s time is Sunday, time to be a prominent back, if not exactly best-in-class.

Might he tap into some of that reserved youthful bluster now, and at least declare himself a fabulous pick-up for somebody’s fantasy-league team this weekend?

“I think so,” he said.

Then added, “But I really don’t care.”

Having become so well versed in the NFL’s brand of reality, Hill has little use at this stage of life for the fantastic.

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