COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Perry Hills has heard it all before, a theme three years running.
Doubters. Naught but doubters since arriving at Maryland as a three-star quarterback out of Central Catholic High (Pittsburgh, Pa.) back in 2012.
They doubted him when he was pushed into starting duty as a true freshman, taking over for C.J. Brown, who suffered a preseason torn ACL. It wasn’t always aesthetically pleasing, nor did Hills resemble the second coming of fellow Pittsburgh native Dan Marino, but be proceeded to lead UMD to a 4-3 start. The 6-foot-2, 210-pounder completed 57.4 percent of his passes for 1,336 yards, eight touchdowns against seven interceptions -- before going down with a torn ACL of his own.
Oh, the doubters came out in full force then. Kid gave it the ‘ol college try, they said. He didn’t perform all that poorly either, they said. But a season-ending ACL? Well, surely he’ll be passed over in the pecking order by the time he’s cleared. Surely, Maryland will bring in someone with a stronger, more accurate arm.
And, indeed, Hills sat out all of 2013, serving a redshirt season as C.J. Brown reemerged and big-armed Caleb Rowe showed flashes. And, indeed, when Hills returned in 2014 he was buried behind the latter two, save for a couple brief cameos (including a short stint against Iowa where he threw a 53-yard touchdown pass to Stefon Diggs).
A year later, and the doubters had all but forgotten Hills still resided in College Park. Brown had finally graduated, but Rowe was still around, while head coach Randy Edsall had secured a transfer from promising fifth-year gunslinger Daxx Garman.
Those two would battle it out for the top spot -- no doubt about that, they said.
But then a funny thing happened: the forgotten man out-performed both favorites during Maryland’s first fall-camp scrimmage.
He did it again a week later.
And then eight days before the Terps’ season opener against Richmond Sept. 5, Perry Hills was named the starting quarterback.
“People never thought he had a chance to be the quarterback, and that’s the great thing about sport, it’s the great thing about life -- don’t believe what other people say, go out and control what you can control,” Edsall said. “And all Perry did was go out and work very, very hard through the spring and over the summer. He knew it was a competition, and he went out and competed and won the job.
“It wasn’t a popularity contest based on anything with politics. It was good, old-fashioned competition, and he went out and won the job. And he just did the things he was coached to do and executed those the best [between] Caleb, Daxx and himself.”
Hills wasn’t oblivious to what those “other people” were saying. He may not have heeded their words or let them stifle his confidence, but he heard those doubters loud and clear.
“I would say that people don’t think I have the greatest arm or am not the quickest or not the most accurate,” Hills said. “But I just looked at it as, I wanted an opportunity to compete. When Coach said it was a three-man competition, I was happy right then and there. If I wasn’t the guy, so be it, but honestly I was just happy that I got an opportunity to compete.”
Edsall said Hills began to separate himself about halfway through camp, earning more and more time with the first unit. He wasn’t exactly spraying bullets all over the field, but his leadership, toughness and work ethic had begun to win his teammates over. In fact, well before Edsall released the initial depth chart, Terps’ offensive lineman Ryan Doyle hinted Hills was doing the best job managing the offense.
“A lot of people probably doubted Perry going into camp, but he came in wanting to be the starting quarterback. He was focused, attacked the situation and battled,” receiver Levern Jacobs said. “About the second week of camp he kind of started separating himself with his throws and reads. And he definitely showed he’s becoming a leader, and he definitely showed he could be the starting quarterback going against Richmond … I think he’s going to keep getting better throughout the season.”
Jacobs’ sentiments permeated throughout the squad, according to Edsall. The headman said the Terps “saw what was happening on the field” and “expected” Hills to claim the No. 1 gig.
“[Players are] in the huddle and they understand what’s taking place. . . . It wasn’t guys jumping up and cheering [when Hills was named the starter],” Edsall said. “He won the competition, and that’s football. Guys know he’s the starter going into this game.”
Offensive coordinator Mike Locksley noted how all three quarterback contenders were told at the end of spring ball it was a wide-open competition. Locksley said no one had earned the right to be the starter, so each would have to step it up, especially mentally, heading into fall camp.
“There wasn’t any point where you heard Coach [Edsall] talk about a two-man race or someone being the heir apparent. It was always three guys competing for the job, and we allowed those three guys to compete,” said Locksley, who did mention each of Maryland’s three signal callers will continue to compete and have an opportunity to seize the starting job should Hills’ production fall off. “They all had their times when they did things really well, but at the end of the day Perry was the most consistent guy. He took care of the ball, he was the most productive, and, quite honestly, we felt he won the team, won the offense.”
Hills thought so too, acknowledging he played well this summer. That said, he was still a bit surprised when Edsall announced he had the offense’s reigns.
“Honestly, it was an iffy feeling all through camp, because all the guys were doing a really good job. I was just trying to do the best I could and move the offense down the field. That was my only goal at the time,” Hills said. “But [being named a starter again] really meant a lot with how much work I put in over the summer and in the spring -- doing the extra things to get better. It really did feel good from that standpoint.
“Time here has flown by [since freshman year]. It has been awhile. For me, it hurt just being on the sideline watching, but it feels really good now.”
The Terps and their fans are hoping Hills is a little more, ahem, “prolific” than his freshman year, however.
Jacobs, for his part, is sure the Hills will be.
The receiver actually compared his new quarterback to his former one, Brown, in terms of playing style. Jacobs said the Pittsburgh product can execute the read-option if need be, but has the arm to go up top and make a play. Jacobs then detailed how Hills’ strength, accuracy and reads have improved markedly since arriving on campus.
Edsall, meanwhile, pointed more towards the intangible developments rather than the physical enhancements.
“I think he has more knowledge now than what he had, [and] he’s more experienced than he was before,” the headman said. “He’s a competitor, he’s tough and I think he really understands exactly what we’re trying to do offensively. … I think those are the reasons he’s gotten better.”
Locksley agreed with Edsall, while also pointing out something Hills did during the first scrimmage that commanded the staff’s attention. Maryland’s quarterbacks’ coach said Hills refused the yellow non-contact jersey, asking to go in “live” against the defense.
“He was one of the guys that practiced live in the scrimmage, and I was really happy with how he took command. He’s a grinder; he’s a worker; he studies,” Locksley said. “It wasn’t a landslide victory, but he did enough from an information standpoint, and there was a comfort level with the offense. That was the intangible thing that put it over the top.”
Locksley went on to describe how well Hills fit into Maryland’s no-huddle offense. He said since the Terps don’t huddle very much, it’s imperative the quarterback is able to communicate well with the line; receivers; and running backs. Not to mention they must to be able to change calls, read the defense, and set the protections.
“That’s one area where Perry really took the lead with. … He’s done a really good job with the operations part of our system … and his ability to control the line of scrimmage,” Locksley said. “Obviously being in the system, he’s very comfortable. He knows how the system is run.”
Hills said the seven-game experience his freshman year prepared him well. He mentioned how opposing defenses would “throw the phone book” at him in terms of different looks and coverage schemes, forcing the first-year to grow up quickly.
“I really got to see a lot and put a lot of tools in my toolbox, so whenever I see it again, I know exactly what I’m looking at. The game has slowed down for me a lot, I go through my reads, and get the ball in the playmakers hands, giving them a chance to make plays,” Hills said. “I definitely feel I have command of the offense, and if I don’t there’s an issue. … I’m definitely a lot more comfortable, with this being my fourth year here in this playbook.”
But now comes the real test. Can Hills take what he’s learned and execute Saturdays this fall? Can he lead the Terps’ offense in front of raucous, packed Big Ten crowds in Columbus, Ohio, and Madison, Wisc.?
That remains to be seen, and certainly the doubters will pipe up if/when Hills slips up. Just don’t expect the Pittsburgh product to be one of them.
At the end of an interview Sept. 2, Hills said despite whatever shortcomings he may possess, he has qualities you just can’t game plan for. Call it the proverbial “it” factor, the trait that allowed quarterbacks like Doug Flutie (too short) to Frank Tarkenton (no arm) to Drew Brees (too short, average arm) to succeed regardless of physical limitations.
“I’m a leader,” Hills said. “And honestly, I like winning more than anything. I will do anything I possibly can to win.”