An under-recruited running back prospect out of Wildwood, New Jersey with only one Division I scholarship offer to his name, Slippery Rock star senior Wes Hills hoped to build upon a promising albeit inconsistent career at the University of Delaware by transferring to The Rock for his senior season.
“I just worked my butt off trying to sell him that he could be a big fish in a small pond at Slippery Rock,” Slippery Rock coach Shawn Lutz said. “He had Valdosta State, Ferris State and he had some Division I schools, but he wanted someone who was going to commit and really get him the ball. We did that here, and we had great success.”
Taking that leap of faith by coming to little-known Slippery Rock—who does not have a strong history of producing NFL players—Hills bought into the system and was rewarded by becoming a captain and the starting running back after only a few weeks with the program.
After a strong debut with the Green and White against Kentucky State, Hills missed the most part of three games and the injury bug that plagued him at Delaware appeared poised to steal another season and stall his NFL dream.
A stretch of seven 120-yard plus games in a nine-game period allowed Hills to break The Rock’s single-season rushing record and led the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference in rushing yards while finishing third in touchdowns.
“The highest impact guys that I’ve been around since I’ve been here have got to be Marcus Martin, the all-time sack leader in college football history. Brandon Fusco, who’s going on his 10th year in the NFL. Wes Hills has got to be right there next to them,” Lutz said.
First team all-PSAC and D-II all-American honors followed Hills as he was invited to the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl in Pasadena, California for a chance to gain exposure with scouts and professional executives.
“For him—for Rock football and the university—what better exposure can you get? We [Rock football] were all over that broadcast. They were talking about him, talking about The Rock. Even from not just a football standpoint, with the brand and image… and people say football is just not important. It really is,” Lutz said. “I’m just really proud of Wes, his work ethic and everything he’s accomplished.”
A week of practice culminating in the actual bowl game itself gave Hills the platform to showcase his rare blend of size, speed and power against stiffer competition than he faced while at The Rock. Hills earned an invite to the Reese’s Senior Bowl—the most prestigious event for NFL hopefuls—before even playing in the game.
“The things they like about him: he catches the ball really well and when he makes contact with people, he goes forward. The NFL likes those big guys. He’s quick and elusive,” Lutz said.
Labeled as the breakout player of the week by Fox Sport’s senior college football analyst, Bruce Feldman, Hills rushed 10 times for 78 yards in route to being named the game’s MVP. Hill’s four-yard touchdown run—a bruising run in which Hills dragged a pair of defenders across the goal line—showcased his vision, power and speed.
Leading both the American and National teams in rushing yards, Hills scored the game’s only rushing touchdown. A trip to Mobile, Alabama this week will go a long way in continuing his meteoric rise up NFL teams’ draft boards.
“Eyes are going to be all over him. There’s going to be every general manager in attendance there,” Lutz said. “The last guy that went to the Senior Bowl for Slippery Rock University was Brandon Fusco and he got drafted.”
Lutz feels that a strong showing during the week of practice leading to up to the Senior Bowl will earn an NFL Combine invite. Staying on track and focusing on his dream, Lutz feels confident that Hills will fulfill that dream.
“Nothing has been given. He comes from a tough upbringing and he’s done it all on his own,” Lutz said. “He took this leap of faith to come to a school a long way away from New Jersey called Slippery Rock, he’s not financially settled, and he’s done it all. He deserves a lot of credit for everything he’s done and he’s going to stay on track.”
With the sudden whirlwind of attention and fame gained by Hills in the last week, some college players would let the allure of fame and fortune change the person they have worked so hard to become. Lutz emphasized how humble and modest Hills has been in his time at The Rock and even since his MVP performance.
“Before he left, he thanked a lot of people. He went and thanked our athletic director, he thanked our president of the university, Jon Holtz—our SID—and all the people doing that. He called me right after the game and he thanked me for the opportunity we gave him. He’s very, very modest about himself,” Hills said.
Regardless of how difficult making the NFL can appear to be for a collegiate athlete—whether D-I, D-II or D-III—Lutz saw the potential in Hills as an NFL caliber player who just needed the right system and guidance to get him where he wanted to end up.
“We had this plan from when I was recruiting him. I was telling him all this stuff that could happen and I’m glad it did,” Lutz said. “If guys have goals, why can’t they shoot for those goals? I know it’s only like three percent of the guys make it to the NFL, but it shows you to stick to your goals and shoot for the stars.”
The path to Mobile, Alabama has not always been easy for Wes Hills. The road has been filled with hardships and pitfalls that may have discouraged other athletes from attempting to turn their dream into a reality. However, that same road has also led Hills to where he is today and molded him into the man that set The Rock’s single-season rushing record, won the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl’s MVP and earned an invite to the Reese’s Senior Bowl.
That same road shaped him into a man who is respected by teammates, coaches and Rock employees alike. His humble demeanor won over teammates after only a couple weeks with the team and enabled him to make an instant impact on a team that contended for a national championship.
Now Lutz feels as though that road will make Wes Hills into an NFL player.
“If you ask me, I think he’s going to get drafted in the NFL,” Lutz said.