Spring countdown: Big expectations a Hill hallmark

<b>PULLMAN -- With spring workouts on the Palouse just a week away, Washington State's marquee man on offense, receiver Jason Hill, is all business. The expectations around the junior-to-be will be sky high after a record-breaking sophomore campaign in 2004. But rest assured, this young man knows all about rising to the occasion -- on the field and especially off it.

Hill caught 45 passes for 1,007 yards and a school single-season receptions record 12 touchdowns last season. Impressive, no doubt, especially considering that the year before, he caught nary a pass. Though, in fairness, his spectacular play on special teams as a true freshman offered a glimpse of what was to come.

Just one year removed from San Francisco's Sacred Heart Cathedral Prep, Hill accounted for 38 percent of the Cougars' receiving production. For perspective, consider that this 6-2, 200-pound dynamo had 651 yards more than the Cougar with the second-highest total. He was voted second-team All-Pac-10 after ranking third in the conference in receiving yards and averaging a league-best 22.4 yards per catch.

Not a bad year's work for a guy who earned just two Pac-10 scholarship offers --- from WSU and Oregon State --- despite gaudy numbers, on the field and in the classroom, at Sacred Heart.

LOOKING TO 2005,, Hill's focus is nothing if not resolute.

"One more catch than last year, one more yard, one more touchdown. I don't care about the numbers, really, I just have to do better than last year, and I will," he said.

"I think I'm still scratching the surface. I only had 45 catches. If you look around the country, most of the top guys had double that," Hill added.

It was during WSU's win over Washington in the Apple Cup that Hill broke the touchdown record. His hook up with Alex Brink in the third quarter wasn't just historic for personal reasons; it gave the Cougars a 28-10 lead and just enough cushion to withstand a late Huskies rally and preserve their first Cup win since 1997. While Hill's record-breaking play was memorable, it was another play against UW that got Hill on ESPN's "Sportscenter" that night.

In the second quarter, he went for a pass across the middle near the goal line. Hill had possession for a split-second, but got lit up by Huskies safety C.J. Wallace. The hit knocked Hill out of the game for a while, and was No. 4 on Sportscenter's "Top 10 Plays."

"It's something I can look back on and laugh," Hill said. "I always laugh at guys who get hit, but this time I was the hitee."

Besides, taking some shots over the middle pales in comparison to the adversity Hill faced during his first year at WSU. With just two games under his belt, Hill was in a team meeting when head coach Bill Doba called him into his office. Doba broke the news to Jason that his father, Jerry Hill, had just passed away. Jerry had been in the hospital with an infection in his hip.

ELEVEN YEARS AGO, Jerry was shot in the back and left paralyzed from the waist down. That left Jason, 9 at the time, with more responsibilities around the house, including helping raise his three younger siblings.

"I had to grow up fast," Hill said.

Now with Jerry gone, Jason's responsibilities grew exponentially. When he arrived home, it wasn't just to grieve. He handled the funeral arrangements, financial affairs and other paperwork.

The Jason Hill that left Pullman that week was still, in many respects, a kid. The one who came back was a full-grown man. Going on two years since his father's death, Jason says the family is doing fine. He calls home almost every day to check on his mother, younger brother and younger twin sisters.

When he takes the field, Hill begins every game by kissing his hand and pointing it toward the sky, a tribute to his father.

"Just letting him know that he helped me get to where I am," Jason said.

Jerry's death caused Jason to miss WSU's 2003 game against Colorado. So that last year's CU-WSU rematch was Jason's breakout performance is somewhat poetic. Although the Cougars lost to the Buffaloes, Jason caught six passes for 206 yards, including a 60-yard score. The next week against Idaho, he gained 105 yards on three catches, all touchdowns, all the in first half. Suddenly, a star was born. One week later, when Hill caught the game-winning TD against Arizona with 53 seconds left, that star was solidified.

In 2005, Hill will be part of a receiving corps that didn't lose anyone from last year and has had time to develop chemistry with starting quarterback Josh Swogger and backup Alex Brink. Along with Hill, the rest of the group includes Chris Jordan, Michael Bumpus, Marty Martin, and Trandon Harvey, plus soft-handed tight ends Troy Bienemann and Cody Boyd.

All figure to benefit from a solid running game led by tailback Jerome Harrison, who came on strong in the second half of 2004.

"The future is bright for us," Hill said. "Me and Jerome talk every day, and we put pressure on each other. We both want to be the leaders of the offense as far as yards and touchdowns. We all do --- me, Jerome, Bumpus, Chris Jordan. We all have the attitude that we want to be that guy."

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