Bruising Badger now artful dodger


Wisconsin tailback P.J. Hill went right, crashed into one Washington State defender and bounced off another to pick up a first down Saturday.

On the same drive, Hill tried to elude a diving tackler, who made the play, but got the first down.

While the sophomore relishes making a defender pay for trying to make a tackle, he is picking his spots rather than going out of his way to look for SportsCenter-making collisions.

"It's something I decided on my own," Hill said. "There were a lot of ballgames that took a big toll physically. There were games I couldn't finish."

All that banging led to offseason shoulder surgery, causing Hill to miss spring drills.

A healthy Hill is a must more than ever. Backup Lance Smith was suspended Wednesday for all road games -- including Saturday's 7 p.m. kickoff at UNLV -- while he awaits an October pretrial hearing on battery and disorderly conduct charges. A trial is scheduled for November.

That leaves freshmen Zach Brown and John Clay as Hill's reserves when the team is not home.

Hill showed workhorse ability last season when he lugged the rock 311 times, the fifth most in Badgers history. He rushed for 1,569 yards and 15 touchdowns and was named national Freshman of the Year by CBS SportsLine.com and Rivals.com.

Getting and staying on the field has been Hill's driving force since he was a Pee Wee player when he ran laps and wore a plastic suit in the boiler room to try to make the 120-pound maximum weight before each game.

"I was very determined," Hill said. "I thought that's what I had to do to play the game."

His sacrifices didn't end there. Hill boarded the subway in Queens, N.Y., at 5:30 every morning for the one-hour commute to Brooklyn-Poly Prep, a fine academic school also known for football in basketball-dominated New York.

He was a New York City Player of the Year finalist in 2004 after rushing for 1,421 yards and 17 touchdowns.

Hill then took that bruising style to Wisconsin, where he redshirted in 2005. Then last season, he established himself as one of the nation's best and more physical backs.

But Hill also wanted to be a more complete player and lost 15 pounds in the offseason to get down to 227 on his 5-foot-11-inch frame to add quickness. And he decided to be more wise about when to initiate contact and when to avoid it.

In this season's opener, Hill rushed for 84 yards and two touchdowns on 21 carries in a 42-21 victory over Washington State. A 23-yard gain was wiped out because of a penalty for having too few players on the line of scrimmage.

But that game also highlighted the essence of the type of player Hill embodies. He treated defenders like bowling pins and was part of a play that almost took out Badgers coach Bret Bielema on the sideline.

"I didn't change the way P.J. runs," Bielema said.

While watching videotape of Hill, UNLV linebacker Beau Bell couldn't help thinking of 240-pound teammate Frank Summers. Bell has taken plenty of shots in practice from the Rebels tailback, preparing him as much as possible for Hill's punishing runs.

"He's a real powerful back," Bell said of Hill. "I've seen him run through people, run around them. He's got the moves, he's got the speed, and he can run you over. So that's a deadly combination."

NOTES -- UNLV junior wide receiver Justin Marvel has rejoined the team after failing to report until this week. He is suspended "until he proves he's ready to be back on the team," Rebels coach Mike Sanford said. ... Some tickets remain, though Saturday's game is close to a sellout. ... The first Rebel Athletic Fund luncheon with Sanford is at noon Friday at the Si Redd Room in the Thomas & Mack Center. All luncheons are at this day and time before home games. ... Sanford became a grandfather Wednesday for the first time when his daughter gave birth to Hailey Anne Hanover, an 8-pound, 4-ounce girl.

 

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