NFL-bound? Jeremy Hill won’t say yet

Advocate staff photo by TRAVIS SPRADLING -- LSU running back Jeremy Hill (33) celebrates his 52-yard touchdown run against Arkansas. Show caption
Advocate staff photo by TRAVIS SPRADLING -- LSU running back Jeremy Hill (33) celebrates his 52-yard touchdown run against Arkansas.

TAMPA, Fla. — Jeremy Hill hasn’t changed on the outside.

He’s still an intimidating 235 pounds.

He runs with the same downhill style.

He celebrates a touchdown with his patented chest-beating roar.

He moves piles, rams defenders and bursts by defensive backs.

It’s all the same, LSU right guard Trai Turner said. The self-placed hurdles the running back has leaped — two arrests — haven’t changed the exterior.

“But,” Turner said, “he has matured. Matured as in growth mentally.”

That might be enough to send Hill packing for the NFL.

Hill’s roller coaster of a career at LSU may endure its final ride Wednesday when No. 14 LSU (9-3) meets Iowa (8-4) in the Outback Bowl at Raymond James Stadium.

He’s a sophomore eligible for the NFL draft. He’s a guy with off-the-field issues who might be better off, said Rob Rang, a CBSSports.com NFL draft analyst, returning for his senior year.

Unless, of course, he has changed on the inside. NFL teams often avoid using a high draft selection on an at-risk player, not matter how talented he is.

Has Hill changed enough to convince NFL scouts, coaches and front-office officials? The players say he has.

Like many LSU players, the former Redemptorist High star is mum on his decision. He’s even more hushed than most.

During an interview session at the team hotel this week, Hill shook his head when asked about it and provided no clues about his intentions.

“I haven’t really thought about that,” he said. “I’m just enjoying the experience, being with the guys on a day-in and day-out basis. Until something changes, I’ll start thinking about it.”

A report by Yahoo Sports last week lumped in Hill with a group of other draft-eligible LSU players who are “leaning” toward making the leap to the pros, but many around the program feel Hill might be the most likely to return.

If he does declare for the draft — the deadline is Jan. 15 — LSU will be in a familiar place. The Tigers lost their leading rushers to the draft in 2011 (Michael Ford) and 2010 (Stevan Ridley). Each of those departures produced a surprising star the next season: Ford in 2011 and Hill in 2012.

LSU’s backfield could be in for a whirlwind offseason. Hill’s three backups at the position — Alfred Blue, Kenny Hilliard and Terrence Magee — are draft-eligible juniors.

Their future plans are unclear. What if two or three of them leave for the pros?

“I think the position’s always going to be fine,” Hill said. “LSU’s never struggled at the running back position. They’ll be fine. They recruit fine.”

The future may be 80 miles east of the white beaches and clear water of the Outback Bowl.

In Orlando this week, a mass of highly ranked LSU recruiting targets are practicing for the Under Armour All-America Game. That includes St. Augustine High’s Leonard Fournette, rated by most recruiting sites as the No. 1 running back prospect in the nation.

Fournette is set to announce his college decision — LSU or Alabama — during the game Thursday.

Hill has at least one more game to go during a season in which he has been somewhat overshadowed. It’s easy to see why: He started the year on a five-quarter suspension, and other players stole the show.

Quarterback Zach Mettenberger became just the third LSU QB to pass for more than 3,000 yards. And for the first time, LSU had a pair of 1,000-yard receivers in Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry.

Hill has run for 1,185 yards, second-most in the SEC, and surpassed the 100-yard mark in six games.

This season’s success has pushed Hill high in the school’s record books. A 100-yard outing against Iowa would give him a school-record tying seventh. It also would move him into second in the program’s single-season rushing list, and he needs one rushing score to move into the top five in single-season TDs.

Said fullback Connor Neighbors: “Hope it’s not his last game.”