Pass-catching ability may push Jeremy Hill up draft boards

Seven years ago, Bradley Dale Peveto’s arched eyebrows hinted at an asset Jeremy Hill may not have known would be so valuable.

Already an imposing figure as a Redemptorist freshman, the future LSU running back split out at receiver during a 7-on-7 camp. Standing behind the formation, Wolves coach Guy Mistretta sweated next to the Tigers special teams coach and laid out his problem.

“I’ve got this big kid,” Mistretta, now the coach at Livonia, told Peveto. “But I don’t know where I’m going to play him.”

Almost on cue, Hill darted and veered out of a break on a post route to snag a high throw and hold it in his clutches.

“Oh,” Peveto said, “he’ll play somewhere.”

Indeed, a franchise will walk a card up to the stage at Radio City Music Hall in New York and put in a claim for one of the NFL draft’s top five running backs, one who chewed up 2,156 yards and 28 touchdowns during two seasons in Baton Rouge.

But in an increasingly pass-happy league where platooning ball carriers is the new normal, it may be Hill’s pass-catching that sets him apart. Front offices put value on players who can make defenses pay for going with big corners, exotic zone coverage looks and two safeties deep to prevent getting burned.

“This is what the league has come to, and teams need answers,” Hill said. “It’s up to running backs now to win underneath and make something happen in the screen game, too, with defensive ends getting up field. It’s going to be huge.”

Frankly, too, the workhorse back toting the pigskin 25 times on Sundays is an endangered species. Last year marked the first time a running back wasn’t selected in the first round. Only one was taken in 2011, when the New Orleans Saints tabbed Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram at No. 28.

Consider it a bottoming out of the market, which started its descent in 2008. The average draft slot for a back has fallen 48 spots to No. 148 — or late in the fourth round. Running backs are still get selected, but more often teams are bargain shopping in the middle rounds.

“With a lot more spread offenses and formations, and teams just looking to get guys in space, the game has changed,” ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay said recently. “There’s a short shelf-life for these guys to begin with. Secondly, if we’re rotating guys in and out at this position, and certain players are better in certain areas than others, then maybe we should be spending on two backs what we used to spend on one.”

The dossier on Hill is alluring: He has the size, standing 6-foot-1 and 233 pounds, to be an every-down back. He comes out of a pro-style system where he averaged 7.3 yards per carry, including 13.3 on third down, and is often mentioned in close company with Ohio State’s Carlos Hyde.

“In past years, they’d be first-round picks,” NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah said. “But now, talking about the position being devalued, I just wouldn’t put it past a team.”

For example, the New England Patriots, who watched LaGarrette Blount walk in free agency, could be tempted at No. 29 overall to invest in a running back with Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley entering the final year of their contracts.

So what might convince a general manager to nab Hill — projected as a third-round pick — a bit earlier?

His paws. And don’t get caught up in the fact he had just 18 catches for 181 yards this season. Take, for example, his 14.7 yards per catch on first down.

Getting targeted more frequently, though, was slim. The presence of Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. — both slated to come off the board in the first three rounds — dented those prospects.

“I don’t think the scheme limited me,” Hill said. “I really just think we let our offense take care of itself.”

The scouting report on Hill he looks fluid and at ease working out of the backfield or split out in the formation, which he said are “things I’ve done forever.”

Potentially lost in quarterback Zach Mettenberger’s return from a knee injury at LSU’s Pro Day was the subtle fact Hill worked more vertical portions of a route tree from the slot, outside the hashes and as a H-back.

The cue to myriad of middle-age men in team polos was easy to decipher: “There’s not really a route I have trouble doing,” Hill said.

Hill’s draft prep veered more toward “fine tuning” what he already did well and fleshing out consistency: Taking the right amount steps, getting good route depth, proper body lean and head angles.

“That’s something all great receivers do,” Hill said. “You need to make all your routes look like a go route, and just keep your defender on their heels.”

Sure, Hill’s consistency in pass protection has been critiqued — “He has to learn a lot more,” NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said — but not enough to severely dent his stock.

“I never gave up a sack,” Hill said. “None of my guys ever had a missed assignment. I was pretty solid.

“I’ve just got to continue to keep working on it.”

Follow Matthew Harris on Twitter @MHarrisAdvocate.