Austin Hill smiled all day.
The Arizona Wildcats receiver knew he was going to practice Tuesday for the first time since tearing an ACL late in spring practice, and his return ended up putting a smile on everyone’s face.
“Oh, it was great,” said running back Ka’Deem Carey. “I saw him running routes and I was excited. It actually made me want to practice harder.”
Said quarterback B.J. Denker: “He’s back doing what he loves.”
Whether Hill ends up doing what he loves in a game this season is still unknown. Too much uncertainty. He has to see how his left knee reacts, what the doctors say, how confident he feels cutting and moving and being tackled.
“I don’t want to say I’m not going to come back, because that’s not the mindset I really need to have right now,” said Hill, about seven months removed from the injury.
“Mentally, I want to come back and try to play, so I’m going to try to push myself to do that. In the long run, even if I don’t come back it will still be better for me to prepare like I’m trying to come back, but in a safe and careful way.”
What Hill can say, unequivocally — and happily for Arizona fans — is that he will be a Wildcat next season as a senior.
“I’m not done with college yet,” he said.
The original plan might have been to build off his super sophomore season — 81 receptions for 1,364 yards and 11 touchdowns — and then jump to the 2014 NFL Draft, but he is handling the change in timetable with maturity.
Now, he’s eager to return with renewed perspective and fire in his belly.
“Since this injury, it has kind of opened my eyes up to how hard I could have been working, how much better I could have gotten,” Hill said.
“I’m actually kind of grateful this happened because it opened my eyes … to how anything can be taken away from you at any given moment, any given play. To just work even harder than I ever have before, that’s what I’m doing every day in rehab, and that’s what I’m going to do next season.
“I want to break records. I want to push myself past the point where I feel I can push myself. I want to be remembered here.”
Hill, who was one of 10 semifinalists for the Biletnikoff Award last season, is already on his way to being better. Head coach Rich Rodriguez and receivers coach Tony Dews tout Hill’s improved upper body strength.
“He’s never had a problem with work ethic in the weight room, but all of a sudden, you’re forced to do more in the weight room,” Dews said.
“He took on a different attitude: ‘I can’t practice, so I might as well go into the weight room now.’ He makes comments to the kids in the meeting room, ‘Man, I love the weight room.’”
Arizona has three games left in the regular season, ending with Arizona State in Tempe on Nov. 30, and then a potential bowl game.
Hill said he won’t put pressure on himself to try to play; the coaches say that will be a hands-off subject, too.
“First of all, I’m telling you I don’t expect him to play this season,” Dews said. “If he does, he does. That’s out of my hands. That’s the doctors. …
“I don’t want him to think I’m putting expectations on him. I am never going to ask him, ‘Are you ready to play this week?’ That will never come out of my mouth. Just, ‘Hey, how are you feeling?’ And that’s not going to be, ‘Hey, how are you feeling, do you think you can play?’”
Hill’s 2012 season was one of the best in school history for a receiver.
His 81 receptions rank fifth for a single-season; his 1,364 receiving yards rank third; his 11 touchdown receptions are tied for first.
Now that his intention to return is publicly known, it’s OK to dream about the 2014 receiving corps:
Hill (6-3, 210) will be joined by Texas transfer Cayleb Jones and Notre Dame transfer Davonte’ Neal, who are sitting out this season. David Richards will be back as a junior, and the team’s emerging standouts — true freshmen Samajie Grant and Nate Phillips — will be a year better.
Everyone except Terrence Miller is scheduled to return.
The recruiting class is loaded with potential skill help, including Salpointe’s Cameron Denson and Kaelin Deboskie, as well as Scottsdale Chaparral tight end Trevor Wood.
Hill’s smile returned when asked about 2014.
“It’s going to be fun,” he said.
“There are going to be some fireworks next year, that’s all I can say. I’m not trying to jinx anything, but from what I see now, we might cause a little problem for secondaries next year.
“But that’s far off right now. I’m just working on getting my own thing done.”
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Remember this stiff-arm from last season?