Harris: LSU’s Hill squanders good will

BY MATTHEW HARRIS

Advocate sportswriter

So who wants to wager how vague LSU football coach Les Miles will be at SEC media days when a reporter lobs a question about the depth chart at running back?

On Monday, simple battery charges for running back Jeremy Hill, stemming from an April bar fight in Tigerland, probably nudged Miles toward booting the Tigers leading rusher and former Redemptorist High star.

An hour later, though, East Baton Rouge Parish assistant district attorney Sue Bernie might have made up Miles’ mind for him. Three separate times, Bernie bluntly said she’ll file a motion to revoke Hill’s probation stemming from a guilty plea as a high school senior to carnal knowledge of a minor — a move that could put him in jail for up to six months.

Let’s be clear: Hill’s days of touching the Win Bar before bolting out the door into Death Valley are likely done. Friday’s arraignment, when Bernie can file her revocation motion, is the just the guillotine blade dangling before the drop. All that’s left is releasing the rope.

Ultimately, Hill’s foible was squandering multiple reprieves granted by a criminal justice system inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. Hill did so when patience and leeway in Hillar Moore III’s office for LSU is waning.

Not that Miles is bereft of options with a bruising Kenny Hilliard or a mended Alfred Blue at his disposal. Or an emerging option in Terrence Magee. No, LSU is not scratching its head figuring out who will tote the ball.

But losing Hill strips the Tigers of perhaps their best every-down option, and one whose 10.3 yards per carry in the Chick-fil-A Bowl hinted at more efficient carries this fall.

All Hill had to do was avoid having cuffs slapped on his wrists and being placed in a squad car. He failed.

Instead, he allegedly sucker-punched a 20-year-old LSU student as he walked away from the running back at 2 a.m. at Reggie’s bar — an incident compounded by a celebratory high-five with an accomplice caught on a cell-phone camera.

Yet the bigger sin was squandering the goodwill of Bernie and state district court judge Bonnie Jackson, whose earlier bargain allowed an 18-year-old Hill to land a misdemeanor instead of a felony count after receiving oral sex from a 14-year-old girl in the Redemptorist locker room.

Suspending jail time for two years of probation came with 11 strings attached, but one blazing bright line: “Refrain from all criminal conduct.”

Do that, and Hill could get his education paid for by suiting up and gashing defenses, then make a bid to cash in his stock for an NFL paycheck.

There’s been faint optimism that the moves by Bernie and Jackson are just typical legal maneuvering, and it’s a severe misreading of tea leaves. In May, Jackson slapped a curfew from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. on Hill’s probation, with no exceptions for football-related activities. Add in the fact that Bernie has been adamant publicly in her moves handling the case, and it’s apparent Hill’s leverage in any bargaining is slim.

Maybe Bernie is trying to use the cudgel of revoking probation to hammer out a guilty plea in this recent case. If so, though, why say you’re seeking the motion regardless of the plea?

What part of his behavior provides fodder for an argument that this is merely a good kid who deserves a third chance?

There’s been the line of thought that maybe Connor Baldridge, the student, spouted off at Hill, but it’s unclear whether that happened at all. Baldridge hasn’t spoken publicly about the incident, and the same goes for others at the bar that night. But the fact that Bernie is filing charges with her boss’ backing hints little credence is give to the notion Hill was provoked.

So history and present circumstances conspired against Hill, while LSU’s own recent string of high-profile run-ins with the law do little to help matters.

No, LSU is not Georgia or Florida. The program has six known arrests, counting Hill, since 2010. But few of those players occupied the slots at the bottom of the depth chart.

In August 2011, Jordan Jefferson was arrested for simple battery, later pleading guilty, after a brawl at Shady’s.

Two months earlier, Aussie punter Brad Wing picked up his own second-degree-battery charge after he reportedly punched and kicked a man hanging out with an ex-girlfriend of Wing’s.

And even though he had been booted two months earlier, former corner Tyrann Mathieu’s October 2012 arrest for marijuana possession attracted its share of press.

The handling of Hill’s case sends a twofold message. First, don’t put the DA in a bind when a break is cut. Second, the publicity and scrutiny from LSU’s incidents aren’t being taken lightly anymore.

Moore, from the outset, has allowed Bernie latitude, making few revealing comments publicly about the handling of the case. Of course, this allows Bernie to serve as the lightning rod for fans’ wrath. But reticence to speak is a potential rejection of the idea Moore will swoop to intervene in Hill’s favor.

Mum as Miles wants to be, his days inside a cone of silence are dwindling, and it’s increasingly clear what conclusion we’re plodding toward.

The only question is how much longer Hill’s exile can be put off with a stock reply.