By BRIAN CUNNIFF
It’s been a long road, but Wes Hills is finally at the point where his dream to play professional football could very much turn into reality.
Hills, a 2013 graduate of Wildwood High School, is in southern California this week preparing for the NFL Players Association Collegiate Bowl, which is scheduled for Saturday at 5 p.m. EST at the Rose Bowl and is set to be televised live on FS1 (Comcast Channel 857).
Hills received an invite to the game on the strength of a brilliant, record-breaking season for Division II Slippery Rock University. Despite missing two full games and most of a third early in the season due to a shoulder injury, Hills set a single-season rushing record at Slippery Rock with 1,714 yards. He also ran for 17 touchdowns and amassed 1,907 all-purpose yards, the second highest total in Slippery Rock history. He helped Slippery Rock to an 11-3 overall record that included two wins in the NCAA Division II playoffs.
Hills put together his historic season at Slippery Rock after sitting out a full year after leaving the University of Delaware. At Delaware, Hills ran for 1,849 yards and 14 touchdowns over three seasons while dealing with a variety of injuries.
“I thought it was a great season,” Hills said during an interview about four weeks ago, when he was briefly back in this area for the Christmas holidays. He’s otherwise been training at a facility in Florida. “I was able to come into a new place and make an impact. I was voted captain there. I love all those guys and the coaches. They really recruited me hard and made me feel welcome, and then I was able to put something special together there that hasn’t been done a while, so it meant a lot to me.”
At 6-2, 213 pounds and with above-average speed and impressive power, Hills has been on the radar of NFL scouts since his days at Delaware. His excellent season at Slippery Rock did nothing to diminish that. In fact, multiple NFL scouts were on hand for just about every game Hills played for Slippery Rock this season.
Walterfootball.com, a website that specializes in the NFL Draft, lists Hills as the ninth-best running back prospect and projects him to be selected anywhere from the second through fourth round in the NFL Draft in late April. Another website that follows NFL Draft prospects, drafttek.com, has Hills rated as the 27th-best running back prospect in this year’s draft.
And just this week, after seeing Hills at practice for the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl, NFL Draft analyst Ric Serritella of NFLDraftScout.com wrote the following about Hills on Twitter: “Slippery Rock RB Wes Hills is a strider who showed some nice wiggle with several change of direction cuts and impressive spin move. He’s a player worth monitoring throughout the week and as the draft process continues – size/speed combo is appealing.”
Wildwood High School graduate Bill Osborn, who played college football at the University of Pittsburgh and was a practice squad player for the Eagles before later becoming a scout for a Chiefs and eventually a football broadcaster, said he has gotten good vibes about Hills’s potential pro future from his contacts in the NFL.
“He’s obviously played well enough to be considered as a guy who can play in the league,” said Osborn, who was a volunteer assistant coach with Wildwood during Hills’ senior season. “There’s interest there and it’s pretty much universal with everyone I talk to that someone’s going to take a shot at him either in the mid to late round (of the NFL Draft) or as a free agent.”
Osborn said Hills’ ability to play special teams is an asset. Hills was a special teams ace during his days at Delaware.
“The people I talk to think he’s got the ability to run. He’s quick in space but he can also run with power. He’s shown he’s good on special teams, and that might be his ticket early because being good on special teams is going to get you a longer look. It definitely adds to his value,” Osborn said.
With the NFL Draft still a few months away, Hills said he’s more focused on performing well at the Collegiate Bowl and then hopes for a good showing at an upcoming pro day and an invite to the NFL Draft Combine that runs from Feb. 26 through March 4. But he admitted it’s difficult not to think about his chances of being drafted or signing with an NFL team as a free agent this spring.
“It’s crazy. It’ still surreal. It hasn’t hit me yet,” Hills said with a smile. “To have a chance and a shot to play in the league, that’s something I’ve been dreaming about since I was a kid. I’ve been watching the NFL since I was young and that was always my dream. I can’t wait for the opportunity but I also have to keep the same work ethic approaching everything. I have to get my body right.”
Hills enjoyed an extraordinary career at Wildwood High prior to his college days. He ran for a Cape May County record 2,107 yards and 35 touchdowns as a senior after posting 1,294 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns as a junior. Wildwood made its first-ever South Jersey playoff appearance under the current system during Hills’ senior season in 2012. Hills was also a standout basketball player and set school records in the triple jump and 400 meters in track.
“Wes has met the goal of giving himself the opportunity to show his skills to the people at the next level,” Osborn said. “From now all the way up to the draft, it’s a matter of how teams value him and how high he’ll go. But come latte April I have no doubt he’s going to be with some NFL team and he’s going to get a chance to show his talents.
“For a kid coming from Wildwood, he really did all the things he had to do to get recognized. It’s pretty cool. It’s a credit to him and his skills and his work ethic and his passion.”
According to the Slippery Rock athletics website, Hills will wear No. 34 and will play for the National team in the Collegiate Bowl. His team is coached by former NFL head coach Mike Tice.
Hills has also accepted an invitation to play in the Reese’s Senior Bowl, scheduled for Jan. 26 in Mobile, Ala.