With the first pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, the Arizona Cardinals select…
While that future distinction is currently up for debate, to the chagrin of many in the area, Wes Hills will not be the name called by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.
Hills, a senior running back from Slippery Rock University, likely will not be selected during the opening day of the NFL Draft in Nashville, Tennessee Thursday evening. He does, however, have a chance to become the first SRU football player drafted since Brandon Fusco in the sixth round of the 2011 Draft.
Slippery Rock head football coach Shawn Lutz, who was instrumental in facilitating Hills’ move from Delaware to Slippery Rock, reiterated his confidence in Hills becoming an NFL player.
“I knew he had the ability, that was never a question,” Lutz said. “Everybody needs to remember that after his junior year, he had a draft grade of a late round draft pick. I knew he had that opportunity and it just really worked out well for him and I’m so proud everything he’s accomplished.”
‘if you want a chance to play in the NFL, you’ve been injury prone, you’ve got to suck it up,’ and he came back,”
Following a senior season in which Hills led the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC) with 1,714 rushing yards—despite missing two games and all but a few snaps of a third—while leading SRU to the NCAA Division II quarterfinals, he accumulated widespread regional and national recognition.
An MVP-showing at the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl and a subsequent appearance in the Reese’s Senior Bowl, the most prestigious All-Star game in college football, cemented Hills as a legitimate NFL prospect.
While many mock drafts have Hills going undrafted or falling to later rounds, Lutz feels as though his star halfback is as talented as anyone in the country.
“I honestly think he’s a third-round draft pick or even higher if he didn’t have the injuries,” Lutz said. “He had nothing that needed surgery so it’s not like he had a ripped knee or anything. It’s been bumps and bruises. If he didn’t have the injury issues, he’d be as good as anybody.”
Every NFL-caliber running back brings the speed, explosion and quickness that scouts prioritize. Lutz said Hills brings all those qualities to the table yet excels in the less than glamorous facets of the position, too.
“He practices so hard; he’s so driven,” said Lutz. “The best intangible he brings to the table as a running back is that he blocks – he would excel as a special team’s player. He can also catch the ball out of the backfield and that will help him as a third down guy.”
With the draft only a few hours away, Hills’ NFL future has not always been so clear.
After leaving the University of Delaware following four injury-plagued seasons—in which Hills excelled while healthy, racking up 1,849 yards at a clip of 6.5 yards a carry over 32 games—his NFL dream was up in the air.
A call from SRU alumnus Jim Ward, a Philadelphia Eagles’ scout, introduced Lutz to the big, bruising back from Wildwood, New Jersey. The rest was history—after convincing Hills to endure western Pennsylvania’s often erratic weather, joked Lutz.
A few miles of potholes plagued Hills on the early road to reviving his draft stock. He said how he responded to that adversity shaped the man he has become today.
Before the beginning of Hills’ only season at SRU, a car accident while leaving Slippery Rock for home back in New Jersey could have ended both his NFL dream and his life.
In an interview with Joseph Santoliquito from PhillyVoice, Hills said, “That was my first car and that’s why it meant a lot more to me, and it was eye-opening and certainly set me on the path that I’m on now. I just remember getting out of the car and getting on my knees and saying a prayer that I was still alive. What happened that night set me on the path that I’m on now.”
A few months later, after a stellar debut in a Green and White jersey against Kentucky State, Hills left SRU’s week two game against Shippensburg after just two snaps with a shoulder injury. Lutz feared his star transfer’s season was over.
“The Shippensburg game when he sprained that shoulder. I never thought he’d play again, and I told him, ‘if you want a chance to play in the NFL, you’ve been injury prone, you’ve got to suck it up,’ and he came back,” Lutz said.
Hills expressed how fear did creep into the back of his mind following the injury, but he did not let it consume him.
“I just sat back and thought it over with the doctors,” Hills said. “They were telling me I’d probably be out until that Cal-U game or it’d possibly season-ending, and I might need surgery, but it healed within a two-week span. Once I got cleared to play, I played full throttle in the IUP game and went up from there.”
Returning from the field against Indiana University (Pa.) healthy for the first time since week one, Hills ran down a vaunted Crimson Hawks’ defense for 126 yards and a touchdown and caught five catches for a season-high 56 receiving yards.
Hills’ huge day on the ground, and in the air, spearheaded SRU to an upset victory over then-No. 14 IUP. Lutz credited Hills with helping build his early head coaching career resume after the victory.
“We beat IUP on their homecoming game and he single-handedly, on that last drive, took us to the promised land. I think we gave him the ball on every single play, whether catching it or handing it off, and that was a highlight of our relationship,” Lutz said.
The IUP game began a streak of seven 125 plus yard games in a nine-game stretch, which included six games of 150 yards and three of 200 yards.
According to Lutz, Hills’ size and stature allowed him to dominate competition not just in the PSAC but in the Colonial Athletic Conference (CAA) while at UD.
“You don’t coach the stature and the size of a Wes Hills,” Lutz said. “He’s 6’2” and 220 pounds and he’s just a bruiser. When I saw his film from Delaware, he averaged 6.5 yards a carry there and he was a two-time captain. You just don’t find guys like that.”
Shifty, speedy guys like a Le’Veon Bell or Alvin Kamara with the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield have begun to dominate the NFL. While that is not Hills’ game, Lutz pointed to another running back who dominated the Southeastern Conference (SEC) during his days in the NCAA as an apt comparison in terms of talent and playing style.
“In the NFL right this second, I’m trying to think of a type of style. He’s just a taller, high stride guy. He’s not a [Saquon] Barkley, or [Todd Gurley] from the Rams. He’s not [Ezekiel Elliot] from the Cowboys… Derrick Henry, that’s the one,” Lutz decided on.
Compared to Henry, who was drafted in the second round of the 2016 NFL Draft, Hills, according to NFL Network, currently grades as a priority free agent signing with a 4.90 grade out of 10.
NFL Network‘s Lance Zierlein outlined Hills’ strengths and weaknesses in his scouting profile:
- Big back with NFL size
- Good production totals in every year he’s played
- Two-year team captain at Delaware
- Averaged 180 yards per game with 13 touchdowns over last seven games
- Recognizes developing running lanes
- Eyes process and respond to sudden traffic
- Falls forward as downhill runner
- Adequate lateral agility
- Has shown special teams talent when asked to play it
- High cut with very long legs
- Will be a 24-year-old rookie
- Missed extensive time in 2015 and 2016 due to injury
- Academically ineligible for entire 2017 season
- Dominant season came against lower level of competition
- Long-strider who takes time to ramp up his speed
- Change of direction and cut completion is too gradual
- Not enough speed to get to the edge
- Below-average tackle breaker for his size
While Hills has seen mixed reviews from major NFL Draft experts and websites over the past few months, one team falling in love with Hills’ game tape, interviews or private workouts is all it takes to have his name called sometime this weekend.
A handful of teams have already expressed interest in Hills, notably the Atlanta Falcons, Philadelphia Eagles, Pittsburgh Steelers and the New England Patriots.
If one of those teams feels as though Hills would make an early impact in some capacity as a rookie, a day three draft pick could be used on the soon-to-be 24-year-old.
Regardless of whether or not Hills is drafted this weekend, Lutz feels strongly Hills will be able to carve out a roster spot in the NFL.
“Will he get that name called? I hope so. The bottom line is someone would pick him up as a free agent, and I think he has a great shot at making the team if he stays healthy,” Lutz said.
With the 2019 NFL Draft beginning tonight at 8 p.m. on ABC, three days of draft coverage will air on ABC, ESPN and NFL Network from April 25 until April 27.