Three hours after a district judge spared LSU running back Jeremy Hill jail time, Hill stood before the Tigers in their team meeting room as they mulled their piece of the say in his fate.
Whatever words Hill uttered sufficed, and a unanimous vote helped usher the suspended sophomore back into the fold. He donned workout garb for LSU’s afternoon practice Monday.
The punishment awaiting him hasn’t been doled out by coach Les Miles, who said the “ridicule” heaped on Hill left its mark as he spoke to teammates.
“You should have been in this room when he started talking and how quiet it was,” Miles said. “I promise you, it doesn’t get that quiet for me.”
But the notion of Hill’s return was clearly embraced by the Tigers after they were told a state district judge spared him jail time and extended his probation for carnal knowledge of a minor after a July guilty plea to punching a LSU student outside a bar in Tigerland during April.
“I kind of need him back,” senior running back Alfred Blue said. “It’s tough going the whole year by yourself running that rock.”
On April 29, Miles suspended Hill indefinitely. Until Monday, Miles had publicly taken the stance of withholding further comment until the court system had rendered its conclusion. But the LSU coach said he wouldn’t discuss whether Hill would miss any games or when a decision might be reached.
Yet Miles said he might consult with a core of players known as the “unity council,” made up from each position, for input as to what steps he should take in handling Hill.
“I think I’ll take an opinion there,” Miles said. “I don’t know if I’ll let them make them decision, but I will definitely take an opinion.”
Those players who know Hill best said the team would clearly welcome his return. Ringed by TV cameras, junior running back Kenny Hilliard said he’s “been talking to him, (and telling him) to keep his head up.”
“I know things have been hard for him right now,” Hilliard said. “Once he’s back, it’ll be a blessing for him just to be a part of the Tigers.”
Not that the reaction is surprising.
Without Hill in the fold, LSU’s depth at running back ran thin, considering juniors Spencer Ware and Michael Ford — the combined source of 759 yards and four touchdowns — left early for the NFL draft. Blue, who tore his left ACL against Idaho last season, and Hilliard were the only regular contributors left.
If Hill had not been suspended, it’s likely he would have been the starter, but Blue “has since stepped in front,” Miles said.
Not that Blue doesn’t expect Hill, who missed the Tigers’ summer workouts and had to condition on his own, to try to make up for lost time.
“The competition of me being (a) full-go and back, that competition between me and him, is going to (motivate) him even harder,” Blue said. “He probably knows I’m a great back. I know he’s a great back, and I know he wants that starting job.”
Asked how Hill looked in his first practice since spring, Miles didn’t couch his assessment.
“He’s rusty as heck,” Miles said. “He better get back to practice if he expects to play at all.”
Perhaps no can empathize with Hill more than quarterback Zach Mettenberger, whose own legal entanglement and guilty plea to sexual battery in 2010 led to his transfer from Georgia to Butler (Kan.) Community College. Yet Mettenberger said there’s enough people trying to get Hill’s ear as he moves on from controversy.
“He’s got so many people telling him what he can and can’t do, so many people telling him what’s right and what’s wrong,” Mettenberger said. “He understands that. You understand that you made a mistake. It gets old when people kind of keep on harping on it, harping on it. Jeremy knows what the did and just needs to learn and keep building from this experience.”
So does that mean the chief duty for LSU’s players is to create as normal of an environment as possible?
“As teammates, we all understand what he did, and he knows what he did,” Mettenberger said. “And we all know he’s apologetic about it. You just kind of let the past be and just move forward from here.”
For Hilliard, Hill’s return ushers a close friend back into the daily grind of preseason camp. The pair of rushers formed a tight trio with left tackle La’el Collins, a teammate of Hill’s at Redemptorist, during their recruitment as part of the Tigers’ 2011 signing class.
Similar to wide receiver Jarvis Landry, another member of that class, Hilliard said he’d remain in constant contact with Hill during his exile from the program and emphasized that Hill was going “to learn from it, and it won’t happen again.” Informed of Hill’s statements to Jackson that he plans to lean more on his family moving forward, Hilliard said it creates a role for him to aid his friend’s effort to move forward.
“If he stays close to his family, they’re going to lead him the right way,” Hilliard said. “I’m (like) a brother, and I’m going to lead him the right way. I can do what I can to help him stay out of trouble. We all need to do that.”
As for Collins, he thinks Hill understands his position as a key contributor at a program of LSU caliber will draw more scrutiny than a similar incident might warrant for person of less prominent publicly.
“We live under a big microscope,” Collins said. “Everything you do is watched. Everything you do is followed. I’m pretty sure he’s got everything together.”
Considering it’s also the third year in a row an off-the-filed incident has marred August, Miles was left punctuating a seemingly obvious point.
“It’s a reminder that you’re not invisible,” Miles said. “You carry a responsibility with the number wear into this stadium. That number does not leave your back when you go out on a Friday or Saturday night.”
In court, Jackson asked Hill, who originally told Baton Rouge police he had not been at Reggie’s Bar the night of that attack, what he saw when he watched video footage of him punching 20-year-old Connor Baldridge in the side of the head. Hill told Jackson the lesson imparted was “to put himself in a better position” after “going with a crowd, just doing things I shouldn’t be doing.”
“Since I haven’t been in bars and since this incident, I finally saw myself for who I really am,” Hill told Jackson.
LSU is betting the transformation is genuine, but Hilliard isn’t a hard-won convert.
“I feel like it was a stupid mistake and he learned,” Hilliard said. “Everybody makes mistakes. I guess he’s going to learn from it and it won’t happen again.”
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