Arizona Wildcats coach Rich Rodriguez is using early bowl practices to get more reps for young players and redshirts — and to keep testing the repaired knee of junior wide receiver Austin Hill.
That has led to perhaps the most impressive group of third-team receivers in college football.
The Cats don’t usually go that deep during in-season practices, but in the past few days they’ve been able to run out the trio of Notre Dame transfer Davonte’ Neal, Texas transfer Cayleb Jones and Hill.
The first two aren’t eligible to play this season. Hill is, but don’t expect him to make his season debut in the AdvoCare V100 Bowl on Dec. 31.
“I’m 75, 80 percent,” said Hill, who suffered a torn ACL late in spring practice.
“I don’t want to over-guess. I’ve been running full speed on it, cutting on it. Everything’s good. The only thing now is I just have to progress into hitting and getting tackled. I don’t think they will allow me to get tackled until the first game or right before.”
That sounds like a definitive “he’s out” for the bowl game, but Hill is keeping all his options on the table. Rodriguez has said a playing-time decision is up to Hill and the doctors.
“Right now, I’m trying to gain as much confidence as I can in it,” Hill said of the knee. “I have a couple more weeks. That’s a long time. I can make strides.”
Hill, who was one of 10 semifinalists for the 2012 Biletnikoff Award, given to the nation’s top receiver, said unequivocally more than a month ago he was returning for his senior season. That hasn’t been a question.
Although Hill loses this season of eligibility (because he already redshirted during his freshman year), Rodriguez said the injury didn’t wipe out a season of progress. Hill used the extra time in the weight room to improve his upper body strength, and he was in all the meetings and film study.
“He didn’t just sit by. He’s kind of a student of the game, understands football anyway,” Rodriguez said. “I know this: I expect him to have a huge year next year.”
Hill had a huge 2012 with Matt Scott throwing him the ball: 81 catches, 1,364 yards, 11 touchdowns.
Having to sit out after a season like that never got easy emotionally, Hill said, even after he returned to practice in November.
“Mentally, I’m just competitive,” Hill said.
“I always want to be out there on the field. It hurt me not being able to run out on the field and help my boys out, especially during the ASU game. That was probably the roughest game I ever had to watch from the sideline.”
With the injury setting back Hill’s plans to go to the NFL and forcing him to return to Arizona, the big question has been whether Hill will be joined on next year’s team by All-American running back Ka’Deem Carey. The junior hasn’t announced his plans for 2014.
“I told him, ‘I’m going to tweet that you’re staying. You know, you can’t let everyone down; everyone is going to believe me,’” Hill said with a smile.
“I’ve been messing around with him. It’s his life. It’s his decision. He has my full support whatever he does.”