Vols A Contender For Top Fullback

Conway High School fullback Peyton Hillis, regarded by many talent analysts as the best player at his position in the Class of 2004, opened the Arkansas Class 5A playoffs with an average game.

Of course when you average 236 rushing yards per contest, average translates to awesome. That's what Hillis was averaging in nine regular season games (he missed one contest with a knee sprain), and he gained 234 yards in round one of the playoffs, leading the Wampus Cats to a 39-15 victory over Lake Hamilton.

The state's top ground gainer also added two touchdowns to state-leading 29 TD total. Of course, it did take more carries than Hillis is accustomed to as he ran the ball 30 times. He came into the post season averaging about 20 carries per contest. In his final regular season game Hillis gained 169 yards in only eight carries against Little Rock Hall. The game before he amassed 251 yards and five touchdowns in 28 carries against Little Rock McClellan. In weeks two and three of the ‘03 campaign, he posted consecutive 300-plus games. On total this season, he has gained 2368 yards in 210 carries for an average of 11.3 yards per attempt. In addition to going over the 2,000-yard mark for the season, Hillis has also surpassed 4,000 yards for his career.

Hillis is even more imposing than the statistics he's compiled this season. Standing 6-2, 244 pounds, he runs a 4.69 time in the 40, has a 34-inch vertical leap, performs 18 reps in the bench press with 225 pounds and squats a bar-sagging 625 pounds.

"He loves the weight room," said Conway head coach Kenny Smith. "Anything you can come up with to enhance his skills he's all about. He's a good worker. He challenges himself to get better."

As impressive as his hard body is, it's his soft hands that really separates Hillis from a crowded field of talented power runners. It also allows him to move to H-back, wide receiver or swing out of the backfield from a single-back set.

"We break the set sometimes and he's a one back, but most of the time when we go to a one-back set we split him out because of his hands," said Smith. "There's not a place out here on this field he can not play. He's speed, he's power, he's strength, he's got tremendous hands, unbelievable hands. He's the whole package. He's the real deal."

The worst game Hillis has had this season was against No. 1 Little Rock Central which scored a narrow 21-19 victory against No. 3 Conway. He ran for 155 yards that night in a rugged physical contest.

"A 155 yards rushing against a defense that held a fine football team in El Dorado to 39 total yards in four quarters, that's nothing to be ashamed of," said Smith. "They had only given up one touchdown in three games. They shut out a quality team in Cabot and didn't let West Memphis score after turning the ball over at the 2 yard-line."

Although Hillis has recorded eye-popping statistics, the numbers that most interest him are his team's win total.

"The only goal I really had was winning a state championship," he said. "That's really what I most want to do. Personal goals: I never thought I would achieve what I have right now, but it's been fun doing it. I'd have to give the credit to my offensive line."

That type of unselfish approach is typical of Hillis according to his head coach.

"He understands that he owes a lot to his teammates," said Smith. "That's why his teammates like him so much, that he does spread the wealth. It's not ‘look what I did', it's look what we did. When you've got an attitude like that's a blessing."

Any college team lucky enough to sign the talented Hillis will also be blessed. Currently the crop of contenders is down to Arkansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Florida and Tennessee. Hillis said he doesn't currently have a favorite and is planning on taking all five of his visits before choosing a school sometime near national signing day. He won't begin visits until Conway completes its playoff run. The first scheduled visit is to No. 1 Oklahoma on Dec. 12.

Hillis took an unofficial visit to Knoxville in September to see the Vols play Marshall. He plans to return to Tennessee for an official visit.

"I'm looking for a team with winning tradition," Hillis said. "A school with a winning tradition knows how to win and expects to win. You can usually tell if you'll get along with the coaches when you first meet them. Coaches play a major role in developing leadership on a team and I want to go to a team with a lot of leaders. That's just the kind of person I am. As far as school goes I think education is as good as you want it to be."

Hillis is being recruited by Tennessee assistant Steve Caldwell who has had a lot of success attracting Arkansas athletes to sign with the Vols.

"The coaches are really great," Hillis said of UT's staff. "I like coach Caldwell. I've talked to coach Fulmer a couple of times. He seems like a really nice guy. The players there are really nice. They have a lot of talent there. Tennessee stands pretty big on my list. They haven't done anything I haven't liked really. The atmosphere was good and everything. The fans are great. I've never seen that many fans before, 107,000 people in one spot can get pretty loud."

Other News: The Vols lost out on two other Arkansas prospects when Brett Helms, a 6-4, 300-pound offensive lineman from Stuttgart, and Matt Stoltz, a 6-3, 240-pound linebacker with 4.55 speed from Pulaski Academy, both committed to LSU last weekend.

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