By BRIAN CUNNIFF
Wes Hills has been doubted ever since he put up video game-type numbers as a senior on the Wildwood High School football team.
Hills has continued to prove those doubters wrong over a long, winding and sometimes detoured journey. It appears he’s about to get a major opportunity to silence the critics once more sometime this weekend.
Hills, who finished his college eligibility with a record-breaking performance at Division II Slippery Rock last fall, could hear his name selected in this weekend’s NFL Draft in Nashville. If not selected, Hills is expected to be a hot commodity among the scores of undrafted free agents looking to make their way into NFL training camps. Multiple teams, including the Eagles, have shown interest in Hills according to media reports. The Falcons are also an intriguing possibility, since Atlanta’s running backs coach is Dave Brock, who was the head coach at the University of Delaware during Hills’s three-season stint with the Blue Hens.
The Bears and Redskins have also been closely linked to Hills.
According to one report, every NFL team has at least done some kind of homework on Hills.
“It’s crazy. It’ still surreal. It hasn’t hit me yet,” Hills said during an interview with CoastSportsToday.com in late December about the possibility of an NFL career. “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.”
A big, back with sneaky speed, Hills (6-2, 218 pounds) is a punishing runner with excellent vision and power. He’s also proven to be a special teams ace, which no doubt has aided his draft stock and/or attractiveness as a free agent.
“The people I talk to think he’s got the ability to run,” said Wildwood High School graduate and former Pitt star Billy Osborn, who has numerous NFL contacts through his work as a broadcaster and with Defend Your Head, which produces ProTech helmet shells, an apparatus designed to reduce head injuries in the sport. “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.”
Hills has had to overcome a lot to earn those accolades.
Back in his high school days, observers looked at Wildwood’s competition and surmised that the 2,107 rushing yards and 35 touchdowns Hills recorded in 2012 were nothing more than the byproduct of a good athlete performing against inferior competition.
Many of those naysayers never actually saw Hills play. Basically, to put it bluntly, they just surmised that someone from Wildwood just couldn’t be that good.
Then Hills landed at Delaware, where some figured he’d get lost in the shuffle after going from a tiny Group I high school to the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS).
Instead, he forced his way onto the field as a freshman — no redshirt needed — and became a budding star. He played in 12 games as a debutant and averaged an eye-popping 8.1 yards per carry while contributing heavily on special teams with seven tackles and a blocked punt. He then ran for 952 yards and six touchdowns as a sophomore, before taking a medical redshirt after breaking his foot in his first game as a true junior. He came back as a redshirt junior and averaged 8.3 yards per carry and scored seven touchdowns, despite again missing a few games with injury.
Hills left Delaware prior to his senior season after some academic issues. He sat out an entire year — not just keeping himself in shape but becoming even more fit and powerful while also working for a time as a security guard — and landed at Slippery Rock, where he set a program record with 1,714 rushing yards despite missing two full games and parts of another with a minor injury. He posted six games of more than 150 rushing yards, including three of more than 200 yards, and led Slippery Rock to two victories in the Division II playoffs. He scored 17 touchdowns.
But the whispers from the critics were still there. Was Hills really that good, or were his numbers, again, the byproduct of a superior athlete competing at an inferior level?
Hills put that talk to rest in the college postseason.
His excellent performance for Slippery Rock earned him an invitation to the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl. All Hills did there was go out and run 10 times for 79 yards and a touchdown, winning game MVP honors in the process.
His work both in that game and the practice sessions leading up to it earned him an invite to the Senior Bowl, considered to be the most prestigious of college football’s all-star games. Hills promptly reeled off an electrifying 22-yard run on his first touch, but then suffered a minor ankle injury on the next play and did not return.
Still, his one-play performance, coupled with his exploits at practice leading up to the game, left a major impression on a large number of NFL scouts and draft analysts.
Hills did not receive an invite to the NFL Draft Combine but he was in Nashville this week for the NFLPA Debut, a two-day draft week event for draft eligible players.
Whether he’s selected in this weekend’s draft or signs with a team following it, Hills certainly will get his dream opportunity of having a chance to make an NFL roster.
Can Hills carve out a productive NFL career? That remains to be seen. But he’s done so much to prove his doubters wrong to this point that it begs one simple question — would you really be foolish enough to bet against him?