Coming into the season, it was speculated that the Slippery Rock University football team (9-1/7-0) might have one of the most talented running backs, not just in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC), but in all of Division II football, Rock head coach Shawn Lutz said. Wes Hills, 23 and a senior, has helped his team “run through” the PSAC West Division this season, putting up impressive numbers in the process. During Saturday’s 49-7 win over Gannon University, Hills ran for 207 yards and recorded three touchdowns in the process while also breaking 1,000 rushing yards on the season.
“I got kind of emotional [on the field] when I realized I got over 1,000 yards this season,” said Hills, modestly. “I have never done that before and to do it today, with this team, is extra special.”
Before The Rock, Hills played football for the University of Delaware. Despite putting up strong offensive numbers for the Blue Hens, Hills continually battled injuries. After a promising sophomore season in which he rushed for 952 yards and six touchdowns, Hills sustained a foot injury during the team’s first game of the 2015 season and had to sit out the rest of the season. Hills returned in 2016 hoping to make up for 2015. He battled injuries yet again and played in just five games (seven starts) but was still able to record 728 rushing yards and seven touchdowns. According to the Blue Hens website, Hills was expected to be one of the nation’s top running backs, but was declared academically ineligible prior to the start of the season.
“I ran into some trouble at Delaware and that sort of led into me trying to find a new home,” Hills said. “I looked at Michigan, Georgia, Missouri, Texas, Connecticut, all over really. I decided upon Slippery Rock because I fell in love with the area because I would be able to just focus on football and school, there would be no distractions like in Delaware.”
Hills said that he always tells his teammates that Slippery Rock is not that much different from Delaware. A lot of the players that get recruited by Division II or Division III schools just didn’t receive the opportunity to play Division I, Hills said.
“I was actually under-recruited coming out of high school,” he said. “I had my mind set on going to Wesley College, a small Division III school in Delaware. I was blessed with the opportunity of having a great senior year of high school and was able to go play for Delaware.”
Once Hills decided on transferring to SRU for his final season of college football, he said he then had to begin to learn how The Rock ran their football program. He said understanding the offense wasn’t the hard part, but rather getting into a rhythm of sorts with players he had never played with before as well.
“At Delaware, we were more of a huddle offense,” Hills explained. “We were more of a pro-style team by going with the huddle offense. We usually had a guy under center and we were in the shotgun formation a lot.”
Hills would go on to rush for 164 yards (7.8 yards/carry) and one touchdown during week one’s 38-31 win over Kentucky State University. He was poised to put up even better numbers against Shippensburg University in week two, but went down with a shoulder injury just two plays into the game.
“With my injury, I was told I could miss the entire rest of the season or six weeks,” he said. “I don’t know how it happened but I healed in two weeks. I was blessed, man.”
On the season, Hills has recorded 1,113 rushing yards and is averaging 7.6 yards per carry, which is good for third and first in the PSAC, respectively. He currently ranks in the top six in every major rushing statistic in the PSAC, despite playing in two less than games than most of the leading running backs in the conference.
“I attribute most of my success to my offensive line,” Hills said. “They open up some huge holes for me to run through and I really just make them look good at the end of the day.”
Hills has proven himself to be not only an offensive threat as a running back, but also as a wide receiver. He currently has the seventh most receiving yards on the team with 141 (7.05 yards/carry).
“I’ve always been able to be a wide receiver as well as a running back,” Hills explained. “At my old school they always wanted me to just be a running back, not that they didn’t think I could do it, but they just wanted me to stick at doing what I could do best. At Slippery Rock, they have allowed me to be more flexible and be part of the passing offense and I like that because I can show people I am not just a one dimensional back.”
Hills said he has a special relationship with all of the players on his team. Prior to the start of the season, he was named a captain of the team, despite having just transferred.
“I never thought that I would be named a captain,” Hills said. “I have always just tried to lead by example. I cherish relationships with people and especially with my teammates. They’re all my boys, every one of them.”
Although Hills has a solid relationship with all of his teammates, he highlighted a particular relationship with quarterback Roland Rivers III. Rivers, a transfer like Hills, started the season as the third-string quarterback before being named the starter prior to week three’s matchup with Millersville University, after starter Andrew Koester and backup Taylor King sustained injuries against Shippensburg. Rivers transferred from Valdosta State University, which happened to be one of the schools Hills said he was thinking about transferring to before he decided on The Rock.
“We heard of each other that way but then we finally met face-to-face when he arrived to camp,” Hills explained. “It’s crazy that we were both able to come in here as transfers this season and make such an impact on this team. I admire Roland’s work ethic though because like just the other day we were practicing special teams and I look over and he is running hills.”
Hills and the rest of The Rock football team will look to win their first PSAC Championship since 2015 on Saturday when they take on the no. 9 West Chester University Golden Rams (9-0/6-0). Kickoff is scheduled for 1:00 p.m. at Mihalik-Thompson Stadium in Slippery Rock.