Hillis Becomes Cult Hero To Razorbacks Fans

FAYETTEVILLE --It was like a broken record after Arkansas' 27-10 victory Saturday over Alabama. If you asked every coach and every player in the Arkansas locker room about freshman Peyton Hillis, the opening line would be the same.

"He's tough and he has great hands," they would all say.

Houston Nutt said it first, since he was the earliest to meet with the media. Everyone else said it almost the same way the rest of the night.

"He's very tough and he has such great hands," said Roy Wittke, the quarterback coach.

Danny Nutt, who coaches the running backs, said it almost exactly the same way. So did Matt Jones, the Hogs' quarterback who said afterwards he's fine with Hillis passing him as the state's new cult hero.

"Peyton can have it," Jones said, smiling. "I don't know if I have any more long TD runs in me anymore. I've been telling people that I may not have any touchdown runs longer than 50 this year. I haven't had one that long yet, have I? I'm too fat to do that now."

He's right about his stats, but I'd argue that he'll get one sometime. It's not like he was void of highlights Saturday. His big plays just seemed to include Hillis, too.

It's just that Hillis is something new and fresh. And, of course, he's tough and he has great hands.

"He's a heckuva player," Jones said. "If he stays healthy and is a little lucky, he's going to do some great things. He's got those great hands and vision and is so tough."

Jones is pretty tough, too. I don't remember him missing a play because of an injury in his four years as Arkansas' quarterback. He's had some nicks, but he's played through them.

Hillis will have to prove he can do that, but there is no one doubting the Conway phenom just yet. He bounced off of everything Alabama tried to blast him with Saturday to help the Hogs win the game they've known for two months would be a huge step in their goal to get a young team to a postseason bowl.

"It's a big game," Hillis said. "Our coaches prepared us well. We knew that this one was a big, big game, one we had to win. It was a must win. Now we just have to build on it each week and get more Ws."

Jones is learning how to use his freshman star. His touchdown pass to Hillis just before half-time was similar to a play that Jones kept the ball against Texas instead of firing into a tight window for Hillis.

"I told Coach Wittke that if I ever had a chance to throw that pass again, that I would," Jones said. "He made a heckuva catch on that one today. Was it one-handed? I've seen him do that in practice, just reach out there and snag it. He's going to catch it every time."

Let's go back to Jones' lack of speed. He disproved that theory on the Hogs' opening drive for a touchdown. He circled Bama's free safety on a 6-yard touchdown run that started out as a bootleg pass and turned into a foot race with Bama free safety Roman Harper, the Tide's fastest man, according to their coaches.

"Yeah, Matt's been telling us he's slowing down," Wittke said. "I don't believe it. Alabama has great, great speed. Alabama had two coming to force him there and he ran around them both.

"Alabama did a great job of putting people outside to keep the ball out of his hands today, but Matt stayed patient and made plays at the end. He got that 50 yarder and I thought he was about to break it on the one (for 13) on the play right before that one.

"You put the ball in his hands enough times and he'll make plays. In the end, that's what happened. I don't know if Matt is right or not about being slower than he was his freshman year. But he's fast enough."

It isn't always about speed. Sometimes it's about toughness and hands. Ask Alabama. That's probably what the Tide would say about Peyton Hillis today.

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