Fentress one on one with Troy Hill
Oregon cornerback Troy Hill (13) covers Stanford receiver Rollins Stallworth (13) during the second quarter at Stanford Stadium. - Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports
EUGENE – Oregon cornerback Troy Hill sat in a Eugene jail cell last December in fear that he had just torpedoed all that he had worked for.
Hill found himself there after being arrested for allegedly assaulting his girlfriend. The arrest led him being suspended from the football team.
“Just being in that cell and having my dream took away from me, it kind of hurt,” Hill said earlier this week.
Hill said he knew that he had to grow up. Change his ways. Refocus his life.
“God was just trying to wake me up,” Hill said. “He woke me up, for sure.”
Eight months later Hill says he is a changed man. His coaches say he is a changed player. More committed to his craft. Detail orientated. Not taking anything for granted.
The result is a heated race for the No. 2 cornerback spot with fellow senior Dior Mathis.
The competition is so close that Oregon defensive backs coach John Neal said naming a starter is the least of his concerns at this point. Both will play a lot, with one as the primary nickelback, in a conference where most teams run some form of spread attack. But Hill wants to be a starter, like he was briefly three years ago when he appeared headed for stardom.
“Everybody wants to start,” he said. “Everybody wants to hear their name coming out. That’s their dream. It really doesn’t matter, but at the end of the day, it does, just to hear your name.”
Hill became a starter as a redshirt freshman in 2011, joining another freshman, Terrance Mitchell in the starting lineup.
By the end of the season, however, Ifo Ekpre-Olomu had moved into the starting lineup, pushing Hill to a backup role.
Hill would remain there for the next two seasons.
Losing his starting job frustrated Hill, who felt slighted. To hear him tell it, he simply didn’t do certain things to instill confidence in Neal that he was on par with Mitchell or Ekpre-Olomu.
After three seasons, Hill had amassed 98 tackles and 16 passes defended during his career. Not bad at all.
But he wanted more. Oregon was searching for more from him. Then the Ducks received far less than they had hoped.
Eugene police arrested Hill on Dec. 13 and initially charged him with allegedly assaulting his then girlfriend. Hill ultimately pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges of menacing and criminal mischief, leading to a sentence of three years probation and 70 hours of community service.
The biggest penalty of all came when Oregon coach Mark Helfrich suspended Hill for the Alamo Bowl.
Hill worked his way back to being reinstated in January. Having faced losing the right to play in a bowl game shook Hill, who responded by committing himself to making the most of his final season at Oregon.
Neal said Hill learned a lot from his mistakes.
“I’ve always loved Troy,” Neal said. “Troy is an effort guy. He’s a tough kid. He’s really competitive. Those are the things you like as a coach. All of the sudden he gets into trouble. That’s my son getting into trouble. I had to find a way to help him.”
That help was of the tough-love variety. Hill had to change. He said he committed to becoming a better person off of the field. That led to a more committed person on the field. He now views having been arrested as a blessing in disguise.
“I’m taking it as a positive and just try to run with it right now,” he said.
Hill set out to fix the imperfections in his game that made Neal not view him as starting material.
Balance. Press technique. Tackling. Covering the deep ball. These were some of his deficiencies that he sought to repair.
“Everything that they said I couldn’t do, I just tried to turn that into a positive this year and say that I can,” Hill said.
The improvement has been so stark that earlier in camp Neal said that had Mitchell not entered the NFL Draft, Hill might have pushed him for a starting job.
That’s saying a lot. It also means that Hill could beat out Mathis, who also has been awaiting his chance to start.
Publicly, the competition has been ruled too close to call.
“I think the battle at most of the positions on defense are all pretty close,” UO defensive coordinator Don Pellum said when asked about Hill and Mathis. “I think the good news for us is that it’s not one guy separating themselves, but there’s a couple of guys continuing to elevate their play. That helps us as we look for depth going into the season.”
Regardless of who starts opposite Ekpre-Olomu, it appears that Oregon feels it has at least three starting-caliber cornerbacks.
But someone will be disappointed. Hill said he longs to be out on the field when games are on the line.
“I feel like I can be an impact out there,” Hill said.
But a more mature Hill, who views the 2011-2013 version of himself as having existed ions ago, is ready for whatever role comes his way.
“I’m just trying to do what I can to better myself everyday,” Hill said. “That’s all that I can really focus on right now. Everything else will just play itself out.”
For Neal, Hill has come a long way as a person and he expects him to have an impact on others: “I expect Troy to learn and be a good mentor some day to some other young man that needs help."