Austin Hill's acrobatics leading the way for Arizona receivers
First to arrive, last to leave. This describes Arizona receiver Austin Hill’s practice habits.
On Monday, alone after practice, Hill stayed after most other players had left to receive passes from a JUGS machine, which shoots out footballs at a rapid rate from different angles for players to practice catching.
He’s trying to work on avoiding the thing he hates most.
“For me, a drop is about as bad as a fumble,” Hill said. “I let the team down. Maybe to everyone else in the world, a fumble is the worst thing, but I’ve always been hard on myself [about drops].”
The extra work appears to be working for Hill, who has caught 12 passes for 263 yards and one touchdown as a slot receiver for the No. 24 Arizona Wildcats (2-0).
Entering this season, Hill wasn’t quite as well-known as Dan Buckner or Matt Scott in the Wildcats’ offense, as Hill faced some injury trouble in 2011 after redshirting all of 2010. He played in 10 games, but started just one.
That start, though, was a coming-out party of sorts for the receiver, and coincidentally it was against Oklahoma State, the opponent Hill just tore up for 124 yards on Saturday.
Former UA receiver Juron Criner was held out of that game, forcing the redshirt freshman Hill into his first prominent game action.
Hill did not disappoint, catching eight balls for 128, the team’s one bright spot in an otherwise dismal night where the Cowboys easily won, 37-14.
“The thing I like about him that people are seeing, and you saw it on film last week, is the games he played in last year, he had over 100 yards receiving,” Arizona receivers coach Tony Dews said. “The games where Austin was healthy, he played a role in them and he made some plays.
“We knew that he had potential, but the other part is that he’s shown through camp and in the spring that he’s very smart and instinctive.”
In preparation for this season, the coaching staff moved him around the field, first as an outside receiver, and then back inside, where Hill has enjoyed his success and has finally become “more comfortable.”
“At first, I didn’t really like it just because I expected to be an outside receiver,” Hill said. “But it gave me an opportunity to learn every position, so no matter what happens during the game, I can play any position.”
Hill’s move to the slot has tapped a practically unused source of potential for an Arizona offense that has surprised many with its passing frequency.
All except Hill, of course.
“I knew as a team we were going to move the ball,” Hill said. “I knew we were going to throw it a lot, maybe not as much as we have been, but I knew as receivers, we were going to be able to make big plays for the team.”
One of the Wildcats’ highlights in their two wins was Hill’s diving 30-yard touchdown reception against Toledo. Against Oklahoma State, Hill averaged 24.8 yards per reception and all five of his receptions went for first downs.
Senior Dan Buckner said that while Hill’s acrobatics are a new sight for fans, it’s something the team has seen every day in practice.
“Austin’s been doing that since he got here,” Buckner said. “We see Austin do that in practice so you can’t be too surprised by it. We’re [initially] shocked like ‘Oh, big play,’ but when you do that in practice and work on it every day, it’s gonna come naturally to you in the game.”
“It’s [a] more natural reaction [to dive for passes],” Hill said. “In practice, I lay out for balls, maybe catch a few, drop a few, not make it to a couple. I feel that in game situations, most of it is just reaction. If I can run under it, I’m going to, but that gut reaction tells you that if you don’t get to it, you have to lay out.”
Hill attributes early success to positional mismatch
Hill believes that matching up with linebackers in the slot has been beneficial for him thus far. At 6-foot-3, he’s bigger than most of the players defending him, but he believes outthinking the defender is one of his biggest strengths as a receiver.
“I’m going against linebackers more,” Hill said. “I was taught to read triangles, so I feel that being able to play linebacker to safety is a lot easier than playing against a corner who has a little more freedom and can move around and do what he wants to do.
“Linebackers also have to play the run at the same time as defending you or trying to get a hit on you. They’re less mobile.
It’s easier for me to get into the middle where most defenses leave it open.”
Buckner noted that having someone like Hill, who can line up anywhere on the field, has opened things up for himself and the rest of the receiving corps.
“It’s very beneficial, when you have a player that can play anywhere and be versatile on the field in all kinds of ways,” senior receiver Dan Buckner said. “When he’s making big plays like that it takes attention off of you, off of [receiver] Terrence [Miller] and [receiver/punt returner] Richard [Morrison], and all the other receivers when you have Austin making plays like that.”