Perry Hills emerges as ‘a leader by ex­am­ple’

Quar­ter­back is steer­ing Terps team that’s one win away from bowl el­i­gi­bil­ity

Baltimore Sun - - SPORTS - By Don Markus don.markus@balt­sun.com twit­ter.com/sport­sprof56

COL­LEGE PARK — As Perry Hills re­turned to the Mary­land side­line af­ter throw­ing a game-clinch­ing touch­down pass to Lev­ern Ja­cobs in Satur­day night’s 28-17 vic­tory over Michi­gan State, he was mobbed by his team­mates and hugged by his coach.

Four years af­ter tak­ing his first snap as a true fresh­man in the team’s 2012 sea­son opener, Hills found him­self in a place all col­lege play­ers covet, one most who fol­lowed his ca­reer prob­a­blr thought he’d never reach.

A lit­tle more than mid­way through his fi­nal year of el­i­gi­bil­ity, and per­haps his fi­nal sea­son of play­ing or­ga­nized foot­ball, the hard- nosed, t i ghtlipped Hills is the un­ques­tioned leader of a team that would be­come bowl- el­i­gi­ble with one more win.

“That’s al­ways been my goal, to be the leader of the team, have a win­ning team,” Hills said Tues­day. “I never re­ally thought about it. I just kind of took things day by day, not re­ally thought about the fu­ture or the past. It just hap­pened to be this year.”

Af­ter per­haps his most im­pres­sive per­for­mance in a vic­tory in which he com­pleted 21 of 27 passes for 200 yards and two touch­downs against the Spar­tans, Hills will try to help Mary­land (5-2, 2-2 Big Ten) be­come bowl-el­i­gi­ble Satur­day at In­di­ana (3-4, 1-3).

The trans­for­ma­tion has been re­mark­able for a player whose col­lege ca­reer was in­ter­rupted by a slow-heal­ing knee in­jury his fresh­man sea­son and nearly de­railed by a for­mer coach who never gained full con­fi­dence in him.

“Perry’s al­ways been a leader by ex­am­ple, just his work ethic, his tough­ness, how he goes about his job day to day. Re­ally, that pro­pels him as a leader,” Mary­land coach DJ Durkin said Tues­day. “I think now he’s re­ally em­brac­ing the role.

“He’s play­ing well. He’s play­ing quar­ter­back, he’s suc­cess­ful at the po­si­tion right now. That gives you a whole other sense of con­fi­dence, both self­con­fi­dence and your team­mates have a con­fi­dence in you. It’s great for our team. It’s great for him per­son­ally.”

A year af­ter fin­ish­ing 13th among 14 qual­i­fy­ing Big Ten quar­ter­backs in pass ef­fi­ciency, Hills leads the league in that cat­e­gory this sea­son with a 151.8 rat­ing, slightly ahead of Ohio State’s J.T. Bar­rett and Michi­gan’s Wil­ton Speight (tied at 150.8).

Af­ter com­plet­ing just 50 per­cent of his passes a year ago, Hills has a league­lead­ing .664 com­ple­tion per­cent­age. A year af­ter throw­ing 13 of Mary­land’s Foot­ball Bowl Sub­di­vi­sion-worst 29 in­ter­cep­tions, Hills has been in­ter­cepted only twice.

His eight touch­down passes tied the to­tal he had in seven starts be­fore get­ting hurt as a fresh­man as well as the num­ber he had last sea­son in eight starts — two be­fore get­ting benched by Randy Ed­sall and six af­ter Mike Lock­sley took over.

“I’m def­i­nitely com­fort­able with this of­fense,” Hills said. “Coach [Walt] Bell and Coach [Kyle] Ce­falo have done an out­stand­ing job if I have any ques­tions,” Hills said. “They have [led] me to the point where I’m so com­fort­able where I can just go out there and not worry about whether this hap­pens or that hap­pens. I just trust what they’ve taught me.”

Helped by an ag­gres­sive game plan against the Spar­tans that fea­tured a flea flicker that nearly worked on Mary­land’s first pos­ses­sion, and by a pair of dy­namic young run­ning backs who each went over 100 yards, Hills was sharp from the start.

Durkin ac­knowl­edged Wed­nes­day that Hills’ lead­er­ship role might also have grown in the af­ter­math of fel­low se­nior Perry Hills cap­tain Will Likely’s sea­son-end­ing ACL in­jury against Min­nesota on Oct. 15. Likely was the third se­nior to suf­fer a se­ri­ous in­jury, fol­low­ing safety Den­zel Cony­ers (ACL) and run­ning back Trey Ed­munds (bro­ken foot).

“I think our play­ers re­ally re­sponded to Perry be­ing back and play­ing as well. You can see a no­tice­able spark in the team, in the of­fense in par­tic­u­lar,” Durkin said. “I thought Perry did a great job of man­ag­ing the of­fense like he’s done all year when he’s been in there.” The tone was set by Hills. “You go back and look at [the tape], it’s pretty clear,” Durkin said. “He does a great job of keep­ing our tempo go­ing, get­ting us in and out of calls, com­mu­ni­cat­ing the right way, get­ting the right run, pass op­tions ex­e­cuted on the field.”

With the of­fen­sive line keep­ing Hills off his back for all but one play, the quar­ter­back showed he has heeded the plea for self-preser­va­tion by Durkin and Bell, the team’s of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor.

Hills didn’t take on any de­fend­ers with his shoul­der and hel­met, as he did against Penn State be­fore he got hurt, and went as far as to scam­per out of bounds af­ter a cou­ple of pro­duc­tive runs rather than put him­self in harm’s way try­ing to scrape to­gether ex­tra yards.

“I’m not re­ally think­ing about get­ting hurt, but the coaches told me since day one, ‘Hey, pro­tect your­self, slide when get an op­por­tu­nity to or get out of bounds,’ ” Hills said. “It’s some­thing that I just kind of shrugged off. I’m go­ing to go out there and run some­one over. It was def­i­nitely a wake-up call, miss­ing a game and be­ing in­jured.”

Tony Co­laizzi, who was the quar­ter­backs coach and of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor dur­ing Hills’ ca­reer at Pitts­burgh’s Cen­tral Catholic High, saw a sim­i­lar trans­for­ma­tion between when he took over the start­ing job his sopho­more year and when the team reached the semi­fi­nals of the Western Penn­syl­va­nia play­offs his se­nior year.

“He’s mak­ing bet­ter de­ci­sions. You see him start com­ing into his own,” Co­laizzi said Mon­day.

Hills has seen his own growth as a leader this sea­son.

“There’s def­i­nitely been times when I’ve been very emo­tional, try­ing to get the guys fired up, try to get them ex­cited,” Hills said. “There are times when I want them to feel calm and go into the hud­dle, have a smile on my face and just tell them, ‘Ready to go, boys?’ Just have them be all calm. I’m just go­ing to be there for who­ever they need me to be.”

There was a lit­tle of both in the fourth quar­ter against Michi­gan State, when Hills helped the Terps on two long drives. While most of it was done by hand­ing off to his run­ning backs and pick­ing up a few yards on the ground him­self, Hills fin­ished the sec­ond drive with the scor­ing pass to Ja­cobs with 3:23 left.

“We all had smiles on our faces at that time. We were hav­ing so much fun,” Hills re­called. “[Cen­ter] Bren­dan Moore came up to me, he’s like, ‘This is the funnest I’ve had in a long time.’ There was no get­ting ev­ery­one riled up or any­thing. Ev­ery­one knew what they had to do at that time.”

Said of­fen­sive guard Mike Min­ter: “This whole year in gen­eral, Perry has been just awe­some, a great leader for us. He’s re­ally taken on that role. He’s re­ally been more calm, cool and col­lected.”

It has been a long road to get to where Hills finds him­self now. As his fi­nal sea­son winds down, Hills has a sense of ap­pre­ci­a­tion that he didn’t have be­fore. Win­ning cer­tainly helps, as does hav­ing coaches and team­mates who be­lieve in him.

“It’s just been a lot of fun,” Hills said. “The coach­ing staff, the play­ers, just ev­ery­one around has made it a lot of fun. This be­ing my last year, I’m re­ally tak­ing ev­ery­thing in. … This year’s def­i­nitely been a huge turn­around.”

For­mer Wiz­ard Trevor Ariza and the Rock­ets will face the Lak­ers tonight

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