For week after week, USC redshirt freshman Don Hill dressed out for games, but never stepped on the field. He was buried on the depth chart. While who would start at the rush end linebacker position was one of the most debated conversations of the preseason, Hill wasn’t in the conversation.
Scott Felix was the returning starter. Jabari Ruffin was looking to make his mark after a knee injury cost him the 2014 season and his spot at SAM linebacker to Su’a Cravens. Porter Gustin was the hot shot freshman that kept finding his way into the backfield during fall camp.
The candidates featured everyone but Hill.
But on Saturday afternoon against rival UCLA, Hill was the first sub into the game at rush end. Gustin had earned his first start, but instead of Felix coming in behind him, the coaching staff opted for the aggressive downhill attack of Hill.
It was a surprising move since Hill had only played in one game defensively this season. In the blowout win over Idaho, Hill participated in 15 defensive snaps and made three tackles, including half a tackle for loss. After the Sun Belt portion of the USC schedule, Hill returned to anonymity.
He remained buried on the bench until just recently when he got his first shot at special teams action against Oregon, playing on the Trojans’ punt return unit. He didn’t get many opportunities to showcase his abilities, but it was the next step in the process.
”It was great to be back on the field,” Hill said. “Anything I can do to help get a win, that’s great.”
He built on the limited playing time and his hard work throughout the season earned him the chance against UCLA. Hill responded with three tackles. He played three series in the first half, totaling 16 defensive plays, a new career high.
”You just have to take advantage of opportunities that are given to you and just be prepared when your name is called,” Hill said.
In the second half, USC shrunk its rotation back to just Gustin and Felix, but Hill’s first half performance was noticed by his head coach. Clay Helton said that during the team’s film session on Monday, he made a cut up of several guys, including Hill, Olajuwon Tucker, Uchenna Nwosu and Nico Falah, that have stepped up and taken advantage of some unforeseen playing time.
”I pointed that out to them because you never know when you're opportunity is going to come and usually you only get maybe one to two chances to really show what you can do, so when that opportunity comes, you want to be ready for that.
“It wasn’t that they just showed up on Saturday and played. They were out here every Monday in those development practices and getting those extra extra reps that are needed. They are studying the tape and mentally studying after practice.”
A strong work ethic has been a focus for Hill this season. He redshirted as a true freshman in 2014 as he came off a torn Achilles tendon during his senior year of high school.
After being arrested in his hometown of Boise, Ida. for driving under the influence in January, Hill had to work to regain the faith of his teammates and coaches. It was a learning experience and he continues to work to put it behind him.
”I don’t really think about it that much. It happened. I dealt with the team and now it’s over and just move on from it,” Hill said. “I learned I’m blessed to have this opportunity and just take advantage of it.”
The coaching staff has taking note of Hill’s diligence.
”He’s just worked to get better every week,” defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox said. “He’s a very, very physical guy. He plays violent. I think he’s worked at his craft. He’s coming off a pretty significant injury, so pleased with his progress.”
Helton said he was proud of the players he featured Monday morning, but especially of Hill:
“He really has worked on his game in his time here and it really showed up on Saturday.”