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November 30, 2006

Wisconsin's Hill named top freshman

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P.J. Hill couldn't sound any happier.

You get the feeling talking to him he wears a smile as much as he wears a practice jersey.

He sure put smiles on the faces of Wisconsin fans everywhere. Picked to finish no higher than fourth in the Big Ten in most preseason prognostications, the Badgers romped to an 11-1 season thanks in no small part to the redshirt freshman running back from New York.

Hill finished in the top 10 nationally in rushing with 1,533 yards. He rushed for 15 touchdowns. He posted eight 100-yard games. It all adds up to Rivals.com's National Freshman of the Year.

Not bad for a prospect largely overlooked because he was too short, too big and too slow.

"It was mainly because of my size that I didn't get that many offers," said Hill, whom Wisconsin lists as 5 feet 11 and 242 pounds. "A lot of people didn't think I had the speed to play at a certain level."

Turns out a lot of people were wrong. But Wisconsin has feasted off turning big backs into big gainers behind massive offensive lines (read Heisman Trophy winner Ron Dayne).

So when the Badgers offered, it was easy for Hill to pass on his other offers - from the likes of Syracuse, Buffalo, Indiana and Vanderbilt.

"I really think he got a bad rap on recruiting because of a slow 40 (-yard dash time)," said Craig Jacoby, Hill's high school coach at Brooklyn Poly Prep. "I told coaches, 'I know you're hung up on times, but I'm telling you right now that he can do things that those guys who run those 4.3s can't do.'

"The coaches at Wisconsin saw the skill. They saw something and they recognized it and understood it. They weren't concerned when he went there and ran a 4.7."

Jacoby believed in Hill almost from the get-go. He saw a kid who wanted to improve, wanted to work hard, and never let anything get the best of him.

Brooklyn Poly Prep was tough on Hill. It's an elite private school with demanding academics.

"This was not like going to your average parochial school," Jacoby said. "He was going against kids born and bred to go to private school, third- and fourth-generation kids.

"He also lived in East Elmhurst. And there was no easy way to get to Poly Prep from East Elmhurst. It's around the horn either way. There is no school bus stop in East Elmhurst."

Hill's father had to drive him about 30 minutes each morning just for Hill to catch a bus to Poly Prep. Then it was a long day of school, practice, long ride home, dinner, and a couple of hours of homework.

But Hill put in the work. He kept his head above water academically and played his heart out on the field.

"He never complained or moaned about anything," said Jacoby, who still talks to Hill about once a week. If Jacoby's team has a game on a Saturday, he usually gets a message on his cell phone from Hill's father with the Wisconsin score and a certain player's rushing total. "Just give him the football and you make him happy," Jacoby said.

"I guess in a way it's lucky. ... I took the time to learn the game more, get in the playbook, see how everybody worked and see how the program worked.

P.J. Hill on missing the 2005 season due to injury

Hill's happiness at Wisconsin was delayed a season after he suffered a broken leg during camp in 2005. The redshirt year proved to be a learning experience.

"I guess in a way it's lucky that it happened before my first year instead of like in my junior year," Hill said. "I took the time to learn the game more, get in the playbook, see how everybody worked and see how the program worked.

"At first it really bothered me not to be able to be out there with my teammates, and I was scared a little bit, too. But I rehabbed and got myself back."

No one was quite sure what to expect from Hill or the Badgers this season. They had a first-year coach in Bret Bielema, and first-team All-Big Ten running back Brian Calhoun elected to turn pro after his junior season.

But Hill started quickly and never looked back. He had 130 yards and a touchdown in the opener, a 35-14 thrashing of Bowling Green. He posted another 100-yard game with three touchdowns against Western Illinois in another rout, then exploded for 184 yards on just 26 carries in a 14-0 win over San Diego State.

Things were sketchy against the Aztecs. The game was scoreless in the third quarter until Hill burst for a 53-yard touchdown.

"He reminds me a lot of Ron Dayne," San Diego State coach Chuck Long said. "He's going to have a heck of a future there."

Three games, three wins, three 100-yard games for Hill.

Hill said his best game came against Minnesota. He carried 25 times for 164 yards and two touchdowns as the Badgers rolled 48-12.

"I think it was the game where I had the fewest mistakes," Hill said. "I was assignment ready the whole game. I had some good runs and some good blocks."

The game against the Golden Gophers came smack in the middle of a six-game stretch in which Hill produced five 100-yard games in Big Ten play. The only game in which he didn't reach 100 yards in that stretch was against Illinois, when he was limited to 12 carries for 50 yards after suffering a nerve injury to his neck.

Bielema was critical of Hill during a postgame radio interview, saying he needed to take some "toughen-up pills." It caused quite a stir, and some in Badgerland felt the coach had pushed a little too far.

"He kind of called me out, but a lot of coaches expect stuff out of you," Hill said. "I resolved to do better. It wasn't really anything. I didn't take it personally. That's just Coach B. I put it behind me."

Jacoby said he discussed the incident briefly with Hill.

"I said, 'Are you all right?' He said, 'I'm fine,' " Jacoby recalled. "P.J. is not the kind of kid who won't play if he can play. He played hurt for me and he sure never had to."

Hill bounced back the next week to carry 31 times for 148 yards against a tough Penn State defense. The result was another Badgers victory.

Now it's on to the Capital One Bowl, where Wisconsin will measure itself against a to-be-decided SEC power.

"I'm looking forward to it," Hill said. "We have some time off now, and we'll continue to develop as a team. We'll have a good opponent, and we'll take our practice very hard - like we always do.

"I think we're better than people think. A lot of people didn't think we'd be here. Throughout spring I thought we'd be good. We're very young, but we've matured. We knew we'd have to play as a team, and that's what we did. We stuck together and came up with some good wins."

And one more would bring another big smile.

Coming later today: The Rivals.com Freshman All-America Team

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