State of the Hogs: Peyton Hillis

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Peyton Hillis scratchd his head when a reporter asked him if his fourth spring at Arkansas was fun.

Perhaps fun is tough to define when it comes to spring football practice. Finally, Hillis nodded his head and said he was having fun.

"Yeah, we've worked really hard, but I guess you can still call it fun," said the senior-to-be. "I'm glad to be out there and I'm learning a lot."

Basically, Hillis is learning what it might be like on the next level, thanks to the arrival of new offensive coordinator David Lee from the NFL.

"That's what we are doing, NFL stuff," Hillis said. "The problem I've got is that because of all of the roles Coach Lee has for me, I'm trying to learn three or four positions. All the plays are different for each position. The routes are different. It's a lot to take in and a lot to get down. I'm not there yet, but I will be in the fall."

Hillis is listed on the depth chart as the starting fullback, but that's just for show. He's spent more time lined up as a wideout, a slotback, a tight end and an H-back than he has at fullback.

And there are still some plays he's lined up as a tailback, his high school position.

There may have been a time that Hillis didn't buy into spending so much time away from tailback, but he seems convinced these days. After the next to last spring workout, Hillis said he knows he isn't as talented as some of the other UA tailbacks, namely Darren McFadden, Felix Jones and Michael Smith.

He admits he was never in their league, but a badly bruised thigh late last season has further reduced his ability and speed.

"The bone is never going to be the same," he said. "I've been told that. I'm better, but I don't know that I'm ever going to get all my speed and flexibility back. And, it's probably going to bother me for another year. I don't have any pain there now, but I can't tell you it's the same as it was before because that would be a lie. It's not."

That hasn't stopped Lee from drooling over the possibilities that Hillis brings to the offense, a facet that was lost after the thigh injury against Tennessee knocked him out for the rest of the year. It's not a coincidence that Arkansas' third down success ratio slipped against Mississippi State, LSU, Florida and Wisconsin, games Hillis missed.

"He's so valuable," Lee said. "He's in a lot of our stuff now. I'm telling you, he's more valuable than anyone really knows."

That was hammered home by Larry Coker, the former Miami head coach, when he visited with a reporter before speaking at the UA's high school coaches clinic at the end of spring drills.

"I want to talk to Peyton before I leave to let him know how important his position is and how much NFL teams like a player that can do what he can do," Coker said. "We had a guy at Miami a few years ago. He came as a tailback and we had three or four that were better at that position. But none of them could play that fullback/h-back spot. He was a good player for us there, but he couldn't get on the field at tailback. The thing was, none of those other tailbacks could play his spot. He's still playing in the NFL.

"But Peyton is better than him. He's got wonderful hands. He's faster. He's more elusive. He's just not a tailback. Now, you take him and put him at tailback with about 50 other Division-I schools, he'd play tailback. But he's lucky he's here with these great backs because he's getting to do now what he's going to do in the league."

Hillis seems comfortable with all of that now and may not need a visit from Coker. He's been a force since before the Auburn game this year when he blossomed as an all-purpose back. Lee has seen video of the way Hillis dominated both as a blocker and receiver against Auburn and envisions that role times about four next season.

"What we have to do is get him comfortable with all of the routes," Lee said. "It's the stuff we ran at Dallas with Jason Witten. The Indianapolis Colts did the same things with Dallas Clark. Peyton can do all of those things, but it's going to take repetition and better protection for our quarterbacks."

Hillis loves it. He's spent plenty of afternoons in front of a video screen watching NFL tape.

"I've seen a lot of Tony Romo stuff and a lot of Peyton Manning stuff, seeing how they use the H-back and tight end," Hillis said. "There are a lot of routes to learn, but I'm going to get it.

"I've never worked this hard in my life. I've never studied this hard. I've never had to learn so many plays for four or five positions. It's hard."

But is it fun?

"Yeah, it's fun," he said. "I'm getting better. I know I am. Coach Lee is getting after me pretty good. He gets after every single player if they don't run it right. But, yeah, I think I can safely say it's fun."

The fun part should come in the fall. That's when all the hard work leads to victories.

"That's what we know," he said. "Right now, it's about learning everything and getting it down. I'm learning how to read routes, read coverages and see how to change the route when the blitz or the coverages change. Yeah, it's fun."

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