Jeremy Hill could have been a cautionary tale, a latter-day Cecil Collins. The kind of player that older fans only speak about in whispers, as if to speak too loudly of it would make the myth disappear. Instead, he shows the power of second chances.
The lede of the Jeremy Hill story at LSU will always be the barfight. As long as there are opposing fans and there is still trash talk, any mention of Hill is sure to bring out the catcalls of "thug" and "sucker punch". I'm not going to pretend that the incident didn't happen or that it wasn't a colossally stupid thing for Hill to do.
Hill was indefinitely suspended for the team as he waited for the legal system to grind its gears towards a resolution. He narrowly avoided jail, of having yet another young life tossed into the trash heap before it had a chance to reach its potential. He had to ask his coaches and his teammates for forgiveness before he was allowed the honor of wearing the purple and gold again. He had to humble himself before those he let down, those other guys in the locker room.
Hill never forgot how close he came to losing everything through his own recklessness. He took responsibility and worked to make amends. This is probably he played with a certain ferocity almost unmatched in Tiger football. It's a cliché to say a guy "plays angry", but that's how Jeremy Hill seemed to play: as if all of the misguided rage he held inside was unleashed on the field of play.
Hill didn't hit the hole, he burst through. He didn't just seek out contact, he looked to dish out punishment on anyone who dared attempt to tackle him. He skipped that fabled second gear that great runners have, and he went from first straight into fourth gear.
Jeremy Hill is the single best running back I have ever seen in an LSU uniform since Kevin Faulk.
Les Miles has built a program whose identity is based on hitting the other guy hard and as often as possible. While the rest of the college football world is moving towards the spread and the concept of space, Miles kicks it old school. His team uses speed not to create space, but to close it. And just because the offense has the ball is no reason for you to stop hitting the guys in the other jerseys. Hill didn't just gobble up yards, he almost gleefully annihilated defenders.
Jeremy Hill's numbers speak for themselves. In his sophomore year, he rushed for 1,401 yards on 203 attempts for 16 touchdowns. On his career, he rushed 345 times for 2,156 yards and 28 TD's. He had seven 100-yard rushing games last season, tying him with Kevin Faulk, Charles Alexander, and Steve Van Buren for the LSU record. His 6.9 yards/attempt average (min. 200 carries) shattered Kevin Faulk's school record of 5.6, and also topped Garrison Hearst's SEC record.
However, what I will always remember about Hill, other than a series of spectacular runs that broke the will, if not the spines, of several defenders, is that when he announced he was coming back for his junior year. In the NFL economy, a productive running back should always turn pro if he has the chance due to short careers and the distribution of carries. You have to strike while that iron is hot.
Hill instead wanted to come back because he felt that he owed it to Les Miles. The coaches and his teammates were the only people he believed in him, and he wanted to do right by them. He still had a debt to pay. A few days later, probably after Miles told him precisely how dumb of an idea it was for him to return, Hill changed his decision and turned pro.
This is just speculation on my part, but I think one of the big reasons Hill wanted to come back is that he wanted to be remembered positively by the LSU family. He still had work to do to show that he had learned from his mistakes. I don't think he wants to be remembered as a mercenary who just used the school to get out of trouble and then leverage it into a million dollar NFL deal.
There's something profoundly sad about all of that. I could be a sucker, but Hill seemed to have genuinely learned from his mistakes. He wanted to change and live up to his near limitless potential. At the end of the day, football players are remembered for their deeds on the field. On a long enough timeline, they just become stats on the page. Hill's stats measure up to anyone's.
However, I will remember him as a good man. Coaches talk a lot about turning boys into men, but I truly believe Miles helped guide a confused young man with a whole host of issues into a humble, confident adult. Hill's transformation wasn't evident on the field, he was always great on the field, but in the locker room and on campus.
Not everyone gets a second chance. And even those lucky enough to get one don't always take advantage of them. Hill grew us a player, but more importantly, he grew as a person. He was a part of something bigger than himself.
He was a Tiger.