Perry Hills emerges as ‘a leader by example’
Quarterback is steering Terps team that’s one win away from bowl eligibility
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.”
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