Untapped Potential

Aug. 11, 2011

By Matt Winkeljohn
Sting Daily

Perhaps we all have the right to practice selective amnesia now and then, and Stephen Hill is choosing now. He’s opting to look only forward, being careful even to avoid the practice of learning from last year’s mistakes — at least publicly.

About 2010, forget it. Hill said he has.

“I remember last season, but … I am … well, it’s just a blur,” he said.

Georgia Tech’s junior wide receiver has from the moment he stepped on campus in 2009 looked fit for the role of eventual “go-to receiver” whether one chose to judge by his appearance or his bio or both.

He arrived at 6-feet-5, gliding more than he ran, and quite quickly at that. He looked perfect for a poster with long limbs, a longer stride, speed to spare and a physique that warranted comparison to Calvin Johnson.

First, he had to pay his dues.

He did this by toiling in the shadow of a superstar and catching six passes as a true freshman in ’09. The sample size was small, but within it were enough visual treats that the temptation became immense for others to add that evidence to legendary tales of his high school feats and then predict greatness.

When Demaryius Thomas left a year early for the NFL after a stellar ’09 season, the urge to accelerate the timeline was strong so a great many Tech casting agents quickly slotted Hill into the G-TR role for ’10.

Fast forward to `11: the “eventual” part of Hill’s label remains in play.

Never mind that Thomas had paid three years of dues, including a redshirt season, before excelling in his fourth, nor that Hill was entering his second college season. Few observers kept this in mind, then practicing selective amnesia instead.

Hill is not of a mind to admit that he’d like a do-over. That’s probably fine because there are no mulligans in college football, unless you’re Colorado and you could really, really use a fifth down.

But if you gave him a chance to go back in time . . .

He led Tech with 15 receptions and three touchdown receptions in `10, yet Hill’s numbers were slight upgrades over his six receptions and one touchdown as a freshman – even though he was targeted far more frequently last fall.

Sure, Tech had big problems with the targeting part of the equation last season, when errant passes were far too common.

Hill, though, dropped far too many passes as well. He just doesn’t remember them, or so he said: “Since January, I’ve been working extra at everything I do.”

That includes extra time spent in the weight room, conditioning, catching passes, working with quarterbacks, running routes and more.

Hill was a freak of a football and basketball player (with Tech’s Mfon Udofia) at Miller Grove High in Lithonia, and a fabulous track and field athlete as well.

The Bulldogs wanted him, thought they had him and in fact may have for a while depending on whose version of history you believe. Then, he opted for Tech.

In Hill the Yellow Jackets landed a young man who set the Georgia high school long jump record (25 feet, 8 ¾ inches) with a leap that would have tied him for ninth place in the 2008 Olympics. He chose football, opting to jump part-time.

This is a gifted chap, and his skills go beyond the athletic.

Multiple attempts to re-visit 2010 failed. Asked if his struggles were more physical or mental, he said, “I’m just working to get better at everything, be consistent.”

Did he start pressing once he started to scuffle?

“If I do what I need to be doing, the results are going to be there,” Hill said.

You get the drift: last season didn’t happen; wink, wink.

Hopefully, it will happen in 2011. Hopefully the Stephen Hill whom so many think is in that long-strider’s body will come out and show himself.

If the Jackets are going to get back to contending in the ACC’s Coastal Division this season, their passing game must to be better than it was last season.

That doesn’t mean Tech has to light it up in the air, but the Jackets have to present a much more steady threat in the vertical passing game in hopes of keeping opposing defenses honest and to score.

When head coach Paul Johnson calls a pass, he’s rarely looking to move the chains a few yards. He wants a touchdown, a very big play, or at minimum to back the opposing secondary off to create space for his running attack.

Johnson’s looking for the stretch effect from Tech’s passing game, and Hill on paper is a rock-solid component to help bring it.

Paper doesn’t meet or beat rock here. Hill has to turn what others see in their minds-eyes into three-dimensional reality. He has flashed potential enough to bait predictions aplenty … occasionally out-leaping or out-muscling defenders, and he clearly can run away from the field from time to time.

We’ve seen enough to dream of what is possible.

Hill likes what he sees as well, saying the vibe as been different not only in off-season preparation but in what’s happening on the practice field.

“Oh yes, from the moment we started,” he said. “There’s a great attitude, and we’re working hard. We have some freshmen [wide receivers] that are pushing, and we’re working to get better.”

How odd it must be to be Stephen Hill, trapped between what he was expected to be but wasn’t, and yet still have time for us to keep thinking of what he may become.

Comments to stingdaily@gmail.com.

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