Hill's gamble pays off
On a cold November night at Beaver Stadium last November, Jordan Hill gambled his future, sneaking up on the line between heroic and reckless.
He raked in a big pile of chips Friday night.
Hill, a Penn State defensive tackle from Steelton, was picked by the Seattle Seahawks in the third round (No. 87 overall) of the NFL draft. A Super Bowl contender, in a cool city, with a need for what Hill can provide.
"He's different from the guys we have," Seattle coach Pete Carroll said in a media teleconference Friday.
"He's got real nice quickness, he's got the ability to get on the edge and get in the backfield and penetrate. He's a really good effort guy, and we always like that -- very active. … We need more activity inside to elevate our pass rush."
The Seahawks were willing to ignore Hill's damaged, or formerly damaged, left knee, just as Hill did last November.
The overtime battle with Wisconsin that night did not amount to Penn State's bowl game. It was more important than that.
A loss to the Rose Bowl-bound Badgers would have dropped the Nittany Lions to 7-5. Would this watershed season -- correctly regarded, in context, as brilliant -- have been enough to win Bill O'Brien national coach-of-the-year awards if the final mark was just one win over .500?
As absurd as it sounds, the difference between 8-4 and 7-5, the difference in how it feels, is much greater than one game.
"It would have been terrible,'' O'Brien said afterward, "not to win this game.''
Hill delivered that message -- his valedictory, really -- without a word.
The numbers (12 tackles, three for loss, two sacks, and eight tackles in the fourth quarter and OT), as impressive as they are, don't tell the story of Hill's utter domination of the line of scrimmage down the stretch, of his nearly single-handedly forcing the Badgers to abandon their grind-on-the-ground game plan.
And then there was the knee.
Hill had sprained it two weeks previous, in a win over Purdue, and was carted off the field. The knee had bothered him all season. But he played the following week. The week after that, against Wisconsin, he played and then some.
At one point in the Wisconsin game Hill apparently tweaked the knee again and walked off for a bit. But only a bit.
He and O'Brien didn't even exchange a word.
"He kinda nodded to me,'' O'Brien said, ''like, 'Yeah, I'm OK.' ''
There was a lot more to it than Hill stuffing the run and tackling Montee Ball, of course. But Penn State won, 24-21. Without Hill, they wouldn't have.
A few days later, Hill had the knee arthroscoped. No fluid, and no long-term damage, was the assessment. Hill stayed in State College, and trained with Penn State strength coach Craig Fitzgerald.
But the knee swelled up at the worst possible time, at the NFL scouting combine in February. He ran a slow 40 (5.23) even for a 300-pounder, and his standing broad jump, a measure of explosiveness and kind of a big deal for defensive linemen, was also mediocre (8 feet, 3 inches).
Those numbers were better (5.02 and 9-3), but not eye-popping at Penn State's Pro Day in March.
Hill is a bit undersized for the position at 6-1, 303, especially as a nose tackle in the increasingly popular 3-4 defense. In a draft notably dense with linemen, Hill was seen, going into the draft, as a fourth-rounder at best.
It's an oversimplification, but not a fantasy, to say that Hill appeared to sacrifice his raw combine numbers, and thus to some extent his draft status, to beat Wisconsin. For the difference between 7-5 and 8-4.
But other things worked in his favor. Seattle lost starting DT Alan Branch to Buffalo via free agency. When the drafting started Thursday, four defensive tackles went in the first round. Eight went before Hill.
And there was the Senior Bowl, a magic bullet this year for some of the draft's rising stars, such as No. 1 pick Eric Fisher, and E.J. Manuel, the first quarterback taken. That all-star game, and the practices under NFL coaches, gave people a chance to see behind the numbers.
"This kid, at the Senior Bowl, never stopped,'' NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said Friday. "He's got a great motor. Typical Penn State kid. This is really a solid football player that will help (Seattle).''
Hill got a lot from Penn State, and he gave a lot back. He looks like the third straight d-line anchor, following Jared Odrick and Devon Still, who's going to be a pro.
The gamble paid off.
Email sports columnist Mike Gross at firstname.lastname@example.org.