FAYETTEVILLE -- For the better part of two days in April, Peyton Hillis waited for a phone call to inform him that an NFL team planned to draft him.
That call came later than Hillis had expected. As his stock plummeted, 23 other running backs heard their names announced during the NFL Draft.
Finally, the Denver Broncos decided to use their final pick — the 227th overall selection — to take the former Arkansas fullback midway through the seventh round.
"God has his ways of doing things, and definitely I would rather come to Denver than be a first-round pick somewhere else," Hillis said during a phone interview late last week. "That sure comes from the heart and I feel like I fit in here."
As Hillis has shown over the first part of his rookie season, the Broncos got a bargain late in the draft. Wearing his traditional No. 22 jersey, the Conway native has gone from blocking for former Arkansas running backs Darren McFadden and Felix Jones to making a name for himself in the NFL.
"There is not too many Wampus Cats in the NFL," joked Arkansas running backs coach Tim Horton, who starred at Conway High two decades before Hillis.
In his breakout performance two weeks ago, Hillis caught seven passes for 116 yards and one touchdown in Denver's 26-17 loss to the Miami Dolphins. He made history in the process, becoming the first Broncos running back in 34 years to gain more than 100 yards receiving in a game.
Hillis followed that up by fighting for a key first down on a fourth-and-1 late in a 34-30 victory over the Cleveland Browns on Nov. 6.
And a recent string of season-ending injuries to the Broncos' backfield has put Hillis in position to start at tailback when Denver (5-4) faces the Atlanta Falcons (6-3) at noon today in the Georgia Dome.
"I always knew the talent that I had; one day I just needed a chance to prove it," Hillis said. "I'm glad that I came to a great program like Denver. They give me a chance. That's all they want; they want you to show your talents."
Sharing time in Arkansas' backfield with McFadden and Jones, Hillis got few opportunities to line up at tailback. His last start at running back came in a 28-24 loss to Vanderbilt on Sept. 10, 2005.
And while he showed that he has good hands and is capable of being more than a blocking fullback, NFL teams didn't express much interest in Hillis during the draft.
ESPN NFL analyst Chris Mortensen said there are several reasons for why Hillis fell further than many experts had projected.
For starters, fullbacks are a "dying breed" in the NFL and many teams aren't willing to use a draft pick on a player who won't see the field that often. There was also some concern about Hillis' consistency and his ability to be a physical blocker.
"I was surprised he lasted till the seventh round," said Mortensen, the father of Arkansas reserve quarterback Alex Mortensen. "... Something I always tell people is once you get past the third round in terms of financially, it doesn't matter what round you get drafted. It just depends on whether you go to the right team.
"And when Peyton got drafted by the Broncos, I said, ‘Ooh, he hit the jackpot. Maybe not financially right now, but he hit the jackpot because he went to the right team.'"
Denver coach Mike Shanahan has a proven track record of turning running backs who weren't highly regarded coming out of college into 1,000-yard rushers. And after losing four tailbacks to season-ending injuries, Hillis could be Shanahan's next project.
While the Broncos re-signed Tatum Bell last week to add depth to the backfield, Hillis is likely to get the bulk of the carries against the Falcons. He took reps at tailback and fullback in practice this week, but he said his preparation for today's game hasn't changed much.
"I'm just trying to thumb my way through it now," Hillis said. "All I need is a little practice, a little repetition, and I think I'll be fine."
Either way, things have worked out so far for the former seventh-round pick.
"Hey, he wasn't drafted nearly as high as I thought he should be or he thought he should be. But hey, that's no big deal. He's starting right now in the NFL, hopefully," Horton said. "So that's great for Peyton Hillis and I'm really happy for a former Wampus Cat."
Weight: 250 pounds
Notable: Hillis was the 24th of 27 running backs taken during the NFL Draft last April. Considered one of the top fullback prospects in the draft, he fell to the seventh round and was selected by the Denver Broncos with the 227th overall pick. Despite splitting time in Arkansas' backfield with future first-round picks Darren McFadden and Felix Jones, Hillis finished seventh in school history with 118 catches and 15th with 1,195 receiving yards. He led the Razorbacks in receptions (49) and receiving yards (537) as a senior last season.
Former Arkansas running backs Darren McFadden and Felix Jones each made an impression on their new NFL teams early in the season. But injuries have kept them out of the lineups lately.
Former Arkansas fullback Peyton Hillis has taken the opposite path. Inactive early in the season, the Conway native has significantly earned more playing time and he has a chance to be the Denver Broncos' starting running back today.
Here is how the three former Hogs have fared during their rookie seasons:
Round Drafted.......1st (4).......1st (22).....7th (227)
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