It hasn’t been the best season for Georgia Tech wide receiver Stephen Hill, but perhaps he has figured something out.
Expected to provide the offense with a downfield threat, Hill has instead been anonymous in most games, other than when he’s dropped passes.
Still, he entered Saturday’s game against Duke as the team’s leading receiver with 12 catches for 165 yards. It appeared things were going to get off to a rocky start for him against the Blue Devils when he was flagged for blocking in the back on Tech’s first series. The penalty, which looked like a bad call, wiped out a 40-yard touchdown run by Anthony Allen.
But Hill bounced back later in the game, catching a 79-yard touchdown pass that cemented Tech’s victory and bowl eligibility.
“I’ve had a pretty bad year, but it’s all right,” Hill, a 6-foot-5 speedster, said. “We’re looking forward now.”
This week’s game against rival Georgia has special significance for Hill. After he committed to Tech in 2008, Georgia made a late push in an attempt to get him to change his mind. He refused. He has declined in the past to discuss Georgia’s recruiting efforts or why they waited so long to recruit him.
But he’s excited about this week, the first time he will face the Bulldogs as a starter. He had one carry for 26 yards against them in last season’s 30-24 loss.
“This is a big game,” he said. “I marked this since we lost this last year, from when I signed the papers to come here. It’s going to be a big game, prime time. I’m ready to get out there and handle business.”
Tech may need him to make more plays like the one against Duke. He went up over his defender and caught the ball. He said he thought he was going to get tackled, but once he was able to separate he knew the cornerback wasn’t going to catch him. It was the type of catch that Demaryius Thomas made time and time again last season and helped make him the first wide receiver selected in the NFL draft.
Coach Paul Johnson gave credit to Tevin Washington for making sure to throw the pass in bounds to give Hill a chance, and then he credited Hill with the result.
“It was great to see him make a play and finish the thing off,” Johnson said. “He’s a big, tall receiver. One of the things we hoped to have this year.”
Earlier this season, when Hill had an issue dropping passes, he said he needed to go up and get the ball, rather than let it come into his chest and ricochet away. Johnson said he just needed to relax and play.
That advice didn’t work so well. Hill continued to drop passes, but remained a tenacious blocker on the edge.
After the Duke game, he said his recent issues with drops are happening because he’s been trying to run before he he’s caught the ball. It’s a sign of his inexperience. Hill is a sophomore.
“He’s been working, beating himself up about catching the ball in game situations,” Washington said. “Today he went up there and did that.”
Hill picked a good time to make the play. In the days before the Duke game, Johnson bemoaned the fact that no one had stepped up at the position.
“It has been hot and cold,” he said. “One game one guy will play better and the next game it is another guy. We really haven’t had real consistency there to speak of.”
That wasn’t an issue last season. Thomas was the go-to receiver, catching 46 passes for 1,154 yards. Of course, wide receivers coach Al Preston said that Thomas’ first two seasons were similar to what Tech is seeing this year from Hill and junior Tyler Melton: sparks of brilliance dulled by inconsistency.
“We’ve just got to keep working at it,” he said. “People think there’s just one factor, but like life there’s a lot of factors. There’s youth, guys are having to be THE GUY. The maturity of life, as they get older they get to understand it, the light comes on and bingo. Hopefully that light will come on this weekend.”
Perhaps it did.