By Anthony Gimino
Special for Tucson News Now
SCOTTSDALE -- The Arizona Wildcats' Austin Hill, a wide receiver playing tight end, came across the line on a running play against Arizona State, hiding amid the mass of 300-pound young men.
Hill came up to a Sun Devils defensive end, popping him under the chin and putting him on his back on the Arizona Stadium turf.
"My first real pancake block as a tight end in the trenches," Hill said this week from a Fiesta Bowl press conference. "I don't think he knew I was there. He paid for it a little bit. It was definitely fun. He was definitely after me for the rest of the game."
Hill has reached the finish line of his Arizona career, wrapping up an eventful five seasons in Tucson when the Wildcats take on Boise State in the Fiesta Bowl from Glendale on Wednesday afternoon. He has been one of 10 semifinalists for the Biletnikoff Award as the nation's top receiver, worked his way back through an ACL injury and, this season, sacrificed his receiving numbers to play more of a tight end/H-back role for the good of the team.
It's been quite a journey for Hill, longer than expected because of that ACL injury in the spring of 2013. So much for his plans of jumping to the NFL after that season. But as the coaches told him that day, "You got hurt 10 minutes ago. It's in the past. What's next?"
Said receivers coach Tony Dews: "That was kind of the mentality we all took as a coaching staff. We didn't give him a chance to feel sorry for himself."
By now, with one game to go in one of the best seasons in Arizona football history -- 10 victories, a Pac-12 South title, wins over Oregon and Arizona State -- you can file Hill's injury under "everything happens for a reason."
"I definitely feel blessed," Hill said. "I changed a lot, in terms of how I play and the person I am now."
Hill's forced return to school in 2014 meant that he was around to catch a 47-yard Hail Mary to beat Cal 49-45 in the Pac-12 opener, sending the Wildcats on their way in the conference season. His return meant he was around to mentor young receivers Cayleb Jones, Nate Phillips, Samajie Grant and DaVonte' Neal, all sophomores.
It meant that Hill (6-2, 213 pounds) was around to share some common football experiences with his father, David Hill, who was an NFL tight end for 12 seasons from 1976 to 1987 for the Lions and Rams.
"My dad would rather see me outside at receiver catching ball and running routes, but we've had some good laughs after games about, 'Hey, Dad, did you see me hit that guy?'" Austin said. "He knows how it was down there in the trenches and now I know."
Hill has caught 45 passes (second on the team behind Jones) for 605 yards and four touchdowns (those last two marks are third on the team behind Jones and Grant). In 2012, Hill had one of the most prolific seasons in school history for a receiver, catching 81 passes for 1,364 yards and 11 touchdowns.
In a non-intuitive kind of way, by playing a different role this season -- moving from an outside receiver position to a less-glamorous in-line spot as a sometimes-blocker -- he might have boosted his stock in the eyes of the NFL scouts. He might not have the flat-out speed to play outside in the NFL, but the league also is increasingly valuing hybrid pass-catchers ... just like Hill has shown he can be this season.
Hill is rated as a late fourth-round prospect by NFLDraftScout.com; although postseason workouts will dictate where that projection goes from there.
"It has helped me show that I'm a little tougher than I look, and I took it upon myself to really get better blocking this year and becoming a more physical receiver," Hill said of moving to tight end/H-back. "I'm trying to make it as much fun as possible."
Hill is one of the final bridge players from the Mike Stoops' era, a recruit from the Class of 2010, a group that includes offensive linemen Mickey Baucus and Fabbians Ebbele, defensive backs Jourdon Grandon, Jonathan McKnight and Jared Tevis, and defensive lineman Dan Pettinato. Foundationally, that group has been key to the program's rise in three seasons under Rich Rodriguez.
No matter what happens Wednesday, Hill will leave Arizona with a enduring legacy that includes the "Hill Mary" (the best finish in UA history?) and the fabulous 2012 season -- including the diving end zone catch against Toledo and the stiff-arm on his way to the goal line against Washington. As a team spokesman, bright and articulate, nobody has been any finer. And as a team player, well, this season is Exhibit A.
"When I was thrown into tight end, I really took that team-first mentality," Hill said. "I really took it head on. If they needed me at tight end, if they thought I could help the team out as much as possible there, I would do it."
Said Dews: "He is the ultimate team guy."
Said Rodriguez: "I'm proud of what he's done."
One more game to go.