QB Hills bat­tled, put struggles be­hind him

Baltimore Sun - - SPORTS - By Don Markus

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.”

For pre­views of Johns Hop­kins, Mor­gan State, Tow­son and Navy, go to

MARK GAIL/ FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

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