ENGLEWOOD, Colo. - Ronnie Hillman's short career with the Denver Broncos has been a rollercoaster. A third round pick, he entered the NFL in 2012 as the youngest player in the league. On and off the field, it showed.
Whether he was "stepping in it" off the field, or in the doghouse with the coaches, it took Hillman some time to mature and fully develop into the player he is today. The 2015 version of Ronnie Hillman has been sensational on the field and quiet off of it. On Monday, he talked about how he has matured.
“It's hard to say how to respond if this scheme was here my rookie year or anything, but you definitely mature a lot more as the years go by," Hillman said. "Being 20, now turning 24, you definitely mature a lot more in those four years.”
Hillman has taken to Gary Kubiak's zone blocking scheme like a duck to water. He has easily been the most explosive running back in the Broncos two preseason games, and leads the team with 118 yards rushing. Most impressively, he's averaging 7.3 yards per carry.
“I feel like I fit in any kind of offense, but this one, especially in the zone scheme, it just fits my abilities a lot more than other ones would," Hillman said.
During organized team activities, there were rumors that Hillman was having a hard time learning the playbook, and in the early stages of training camp, Kubiak said publicly that he had to get on Hillman about 'finishing stronger'. The fourth-year pro took heed to his coach's direction and the results have been spectacular.
“He felt like he could get a lot more out of me," Hillman said. "I just went back and thought about it. I just go all-out and whatever I can do. I just do it. I think that was definitely just how I applied it. The conversation that we had, he was just trying to get a lot more out of me, and that's what I was trying to give. It's paying off so far.”
It most certainly is. Hillman has leapfrogged Montee Ball on the depth chart and now sits as C.J. Anderson's backup. However, with how well Hillman has performed and how much Kubiak has gushed about him, Anderson better turn it up a notch if he hopes to keep his job as the starter.
“You just want to put your head down and work," Hillman said. "Like one of my teammates said, focus on what's in front of you right now. Just practice and work in these preseason games and taking one step at a time. You just want to focus on what's in front of you, handle that and whatever else comes after that falls on the cards.”
Hillman is coming off his most productive season as a pro. As the Broncos No. 2 running back in 2014, he took over for Ball when he injured his groin and played very well. Unfortunately, he suffered a Lisfranc injury in Week 10, which gave rise to Anderson's Pro Bowl campaign, wherein he dominated the NFL down the stretch.
“It's very difficult to go from producing like that to sitting for eight weeks or nine weeks," Hillman said. "With a Lisfranc, they have to be very precautious with it and they did a good [job] with it. Now I'm healthy, so I'm just trying to pick back up where I left [off] before I got hurt.”
Coming off a touch-and-go injury, like a Lisfranc, presents it's own set of challenges, which makes Hillman's production thus far that much more impressive. Seeing him tote the rock out on the grid-iron, you would never guess he was coming off an injury of that magnitude.
“In the spring it started to feel a lot better," he said. "Coming back, doing the football stuff and breaking the scar tissue, that's when I started to feel a lot better than what it was back when I started playoffs again.”
The early returns on Hillman's impact on Kubiak's offense have been impressive. The idea is to stretch the defense, find the crease, and get downhill as fast as possible. Decisiveness, vision and speed are requisite for a ZBS running back. Hillman seems to fit the role perfectly.
“In this offense, they want you to stretch and then go downfield as fast as possible," he said. "I think that ties in when you're kind of fast and everybody thinks that you're going to the edge, and then you just go right up the field.”
The biggest concern for Hillman is durability. If he did win the running back competition, and that's a big if, could he hold up to the wear and tear of being the 'bell-cow' runner Kubiak looks for? It's hard to say.
Either way, with how he's running, you can believe that Kubiak and offensive coorninator Rick Dennsion will find ways to get Ronnie Hillman on the field.
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