QB Hills battled, put struggles behind him
COLLEGE PARK — Perry Hills knows that the person who will start Saturday’s season opener against Howard at Maryland Stadium is pretty much the same one who started last season’s opener against Richmond. Hills also knows he is not the same quarterback.
The months he has spent with new Maryland coach DJ Durkin and offensive coordinator Walt Bell have given the redshirt senior a renewed confidence that was lost somewhere along the bumpy road he had traveled with Randy Edsall and Mike Locksley.
The work sessions back home in Pittsburgh the past two summers with Tony Colaizzi, his former high school quarterbacks coach at Central Catholic, and former NFL quarterback Gus Frerotte, have sharpened his footwork, decision-making and athleticism.
“You’re always going to be the person you are, but you can always better yourself and just keep driving yourself to become better at everything that you do,” Hills said.
Bell, who came to Maryland from Arkansas State, said the improvements Perry Hills baltimoresun. com/college football
Hills has made since the start of spring practice have been remarkable.
“The first day of spring ball, I wanted to get back on a plane and go back to Jonesboro [Ark.],” Bell said. “I don’t think I’d ever seen anything that poor.”
As Hills became more comfortable with Bell’s fast-paced spread offense — as the teachings of his coaches in Pittsburgh the past two summers became more ingrained — he started doing the right things more consistently. “It’s night and day,” Bell said. “Mentally, he’s in a lot better place. He’s confident in what we are doing. He’s more confident in his job and in what his job description looks like. No matter what we make it l ook l i ke, he knows how to get to his answers. He knows where the ball belongs.”
Few players in recent Maryland history have shown the resolve Hills has demonstrated over his five-year career.
Thrown in as an opening-game starter as a freshman when C.J. Brown suffered a season-ending knee injury in practice, then having his season end similarly midway through his freshman year, Hills struggled to get back onto the field the next two seasons.
Colaizzi recalled a conversation with Hills before preseason practice a year ago when it looked as if fellow junior Caleb Rowe was going to be the starter. Hills said he wanted to come back every weekend to work out in Pittsburgh.
“I said, ‘Perry, it’s a four-hour drive, are you sure?’ He said, ‘Absolutely.’ I told him to get his butt up here,” Colaizzi said. “We worked on the speed of his feet, his hip rotation. I would like them to say when you go back there, ‘Who is this?’ I think we’ve accomplished that.”
It might have taken a coaching change to get Hills where he is now. He said during the team’s media day last month that Bell’s offense, which features a lot of designed quarterback runs, quick reads and deep throws, “plays to my strengths.” The offense run by the previous staff didn’t always do that.
While he has been mistake-prone, with more interceptions (20) than touchdowns (17) in his career, Hills often played as if he were looking over his shoulder, waiting to be pulled. However, one of his best games came last season at No. 1 Ohio State, Edsall’s final game before getting fired the next day.
Colaizzi said it didn’t surprise him that Season opener Saturday, noon TV: Big Ten Network Radio: 105.7 FM, 980 AM Perry Hills’ summer work sessions with Tony Colaizzi, his high school quarterbacks coach, and ex-NFL quarterback Gus Frerotte sharpened his footwork, decision-making and athleticism. Hills was not distracted by Edsall’s imminent firing.
“He has the ability to block things out that he didn’t have any control over, to focus on what was at hand,” Colaizzi said.
Though Maryland lost, 49-28, to Ohio State, Hills showed how effective he could be, finishing with 170 rushing yards — a school record for quarterbacks — that included a 75-yarder to set up one of his two rushing touchdowns.
“The easiest thing to make a quarterback successful is don’t ask him to do the things he can’t do,” Bell said. “If you want your quarterback to struggle, ask him to do a bunch of things that he can’t do really well.
“The things Perry does really well — he’s tough, he’s rugged, he throws a really nice deep ball, which is a surprise to me when you look at last year’s tape. We throw a lot of them. He’s got to continue to learn to overcome mistakes.”
What Hills learned from Colaizzi the past two summers, and what he has worked on with Frerotte this year, started to become apparent when he returned for preseason camp.
“It definitely showed me that whatever I put my mind to I can get better at,” Hills said.
“Last summer, the [Maryland] coaches told me, ‘You’re too stiff; you’re not athletic enough.’ And then I put my mind to really building that part of my game. Now it’s just tweaking little things here and there, whether it be the overstriding, making moves on the defender, just things like that that I really focused on this summer.”
As much as Hills improved from a technical standpoint, most dramatically in shortening his stride as he is about to throw, what separated him from his competition was “his work ethic and competitiveness,” Durkin said.
During winter workouts, Durkin said, Hills “had almost a linebacker-type mentality.”
“It’s been well documented — he’s had struggles,” the coach said. “That’s behind him and us. He’s in a new offense, a new scheme. We have all the confidence in the world in Perry. We’re definitely going to allow him to go out there and perform at a high level and go win.”
Said Hills: “There’s going to be struggles, there’s going to be ups and downs. You’ve got to keep pushing yourself, not just go into a tank.”
What has pushed Hills since he was an All-State wrestler in high school is his competitiveness.
“Losing, to me, is the worst feeling on this earth,” he said. “It’s like taking your heart and getting it crushed. You try to do everything in your power to stay away from that feeling. You’ve got to hate losing so much that it’s like death to you.”
Said Bell: “The first thing you realize about him is that he’s as mentally tough as any kid I’ve ever been around. If you just take the athletic ability out of it and you just go with pure mental toughness and fortitude, he can get to a very dark place and survive there for a very long time.”
Bell said he could see that during winter workouts, whether it was Hills trying to beat his more athletic teammates in sprints or being the last player doing excruciating “wall-sits,” remaining in a full crouch when every other Terp had collapsed.
“Just name a physical competition that involves some guts, and he will win the drill every time,” Bell said.
Hills credits Bell for helping him not beat himself up over mistakes, for being demanding while showing him how to enjoy playing the game. While Hills’ competitiveness can “be a double-edged sword,” Bell said there has been improvement.
“You’ve got to teach him, ‘You make a mistake, keep on playing,’ ” Bell said. “Typically, what nourishes us also destroys us from time to time. We’ve got to keep him on a nice even keel and keep him doing the things he does well.”
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