Ronnie Hillman, before this season started, epitomized what a young, immature player in the NFL looks like. Since being selected in the 3rd round of the 2012 NFL draft, he has found himself in the Denver Broncos doghouse more than once, for fumbling issues and off-the-field faux pas.
But when the team's starting running back, Montee Ball, went down in week 5 with a groin injury that would keep him out for at least a month, they turned to the extremely talented, but inexperienced, Hillman. In his first career start last week vs the New York Jets, he rushed for 100 yards and gave the Broncos running game it's first spark of life this season.
Hillman carried that momentum into last night's showdown vs the vaunted, but banged up defense of the San Francisco 49ers. He carried the ball 14 times, for 74 yards and 2 touchdowns, one of which was an explosive 37-yard scamper in the 3rd quarter that completely put the game away.
Over the last two games, Hillman has also caught 7 passes, for 45 yards, to go with his 174 yards rushing. He has added an element to the Broncos offense that has catapulted them into juggernaut status.
Although this level of production is everything the Broncos had hoped for when they drafted him, it also happens to put them in a tough position when it comes to Ball's return. Ball was drafted in the 2nd round last year, with all of the hype and (unwanted) comparisons to Bronco great, Terrell Davis.
Ball was brought in to be the team's bell-cow of the future and in his brief career, he's shown flashes of that potential. With the departure of Knowshon Moreno, Ball was handed the starting job this year. And between a combination of poor offensive line play and a lack of decisiveness, Ball has been unable to do much with it.
What Hillman has been able to do that Ball has not, is hit the hole with speed, explosion and no hesitation. It has allowed Hillman to get to the second level of the defense and average a healthy 4.4 yards per carry (YPC). Ball is averaging a paltry 3.1 YPC and hasn't really added anything to the Broncos offense.
There's no question that something has changed for Hillman. Something has clicked. He told reporters this last night:
“Once you start getting in there and you start getting a role and getting comfortable with everything, you kind of get in a rhythm. Every running back needs that rhythm. I don’t care what anybody says. I’m starting to get a rhythm, and it’s starting to pay off a little bit.”
Translation: more reps equals more confidence. Like quarterbacks, running backs rely on repetition to get in a groove. Hillman is also earning the praise of his future Hall Of Fame quarterback. Peyton Manning said this about Hillman and the Broncos resurgent running game:
"I think Ronnie has done a great job as have all the backs. Juwan and C.J., guys up-front are doing a good job and that’s’ really helping us, I think it’s helping Adam (Gase) calling plays. We have good balance with the run and the pass and the play action so hopefully we can keep that up.”
Last night, Hillman's contribution to the offense served as a terrifying display for opposing NFL defensive coordinators. Having a true threat on the ground makes Peyton Manning and the receiving corps that much more devastating.
As long as Hillman can continue to run with confidence and authority and hold onto the ball, he's going to be productive as the Broncos starter. When Ball returns, he'll be worked back into the RB rotation, but moving forward, Broncos Country should expect to see Ronnie Hillman get the lion's share of the carries.
Player quotes via Bleacher Report's Cecil Lammey.