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San Diego State duo as good as it gets
They both were ranked as top ten players by position last year.
And no one east of the Rockies has probably ever heard of them.
Welcome to Ryan Lindley and Ronnie Hillman's world. A small fish bowl in the ocean that is college football. It's a place that has produced one of the greatest running backs (Marshall Faulk) of all time, yet came up short when all the Heisman votes were tabulated in 1992. (Faulk, with 1,080 votes, finished second to Miami QB Gino Torretta, who received 1,400 votes)
San Diego State — where gorgeous women, the best weather in the world and little national respect for its football program have collectively resided together for decades — has been toiling in mediocrity for quite some time. After posting a 9-4 season under departed coach Brady Hoke last year — including a 35-14 win over Navy in the Poinsettia Bowl — there's some excitement brewing.
This year, the Aztecs may be ready to be included in the national football conversation.
And with two huge offensive weapons, to boot.
Running back Ronnie Hillman is a somewhat shy and unaffected sophomore who is also a very balanced runner — he looks like both a slasher and a scatback (with 4.39 speed), depending on the called play. This 5-foot-9, 192-pound back racked up 1,532 yards in 2010, setting both a Mountain West Conference and San Diego State record for a freshman. Hillman galloped for 228 yards at No. 25 Missouri, 191 yards against Air Force, broke a freshman rushing record at San Diego State — a mark that's been standing since 1991 — and held down the No. 10 spot in rushing productivity last year. All this in one year and yet, he feels the need to improve.
Improve from 1,532 yards and 17 touchdowns?
"That's the plan," Hillman says with a big smile.
The other half of the Aztecs' Dynamic Duo is Ryan Lindley, a strapping 6-4, 230-pound strong-armed quarterback entering his senior year. Lindley is on track to surpass the school's all-time career passing yardage leader Todd Santos, who threw for 11,425 yards (1984-87). Lindley was ranked seventh in the nation in passing productivity, ahead of some more well-known quarterbacks like Baylor's Robert Griffin III (17th overall) and Stanford's Andrew Luck (23rd overall).
Lindley is confident, unselfish and completely at ease as the leader of this team — he's more adamant about discussing his team's successes vs. his own. Personal awards are nice, but he wants to win. Period.
Getting him to talk about his personal goals was difficult. At a slight loss for words, he had to be prodded — he's just not that into Ryan Lindley. But, he finally, and reluctantly, confessed to one milestone he'd like to reach.
"The perfect game," he said. "Going 25-for-25, like 400 yards … that's probably it for me. That's almost a dream."
Neither Lindley or Hillman mentioned the Heisman Trophy when talking about goals.
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Perhaps it's unrealistic. Unattainable. Perhaps the cards are stacked against them. They have a new head coach in Rocky Long as well as new offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig, but both players said nothing much, if anything, has changed.
"The offense was productive last year, so why change it?," Hillman asked rhetorically.
With the new coaching staff potential issue put to rest, other speed bumps could prevent them from garnering some Heisman love.
"Everybody talks about an East Coast bias," Lindley said. "A lot of it is almost legitimate. The times … [when our games start] it's seven o' clock here, it's ten o'clock in New York. Not a lot of people are going to see us."
"If you do well enough and everything falls into place, I'd like to say there should be a good chance, but you never know.
"For us, it's just about winning games. If you speak loud enough, someone's going to hear you. That's on us to make enough noise, do what we're supposed to do — win games."
Hillman also thinks it can be a perception problem.
"Guys like Kellen Moore and Andy Dalton, they've been doing it for awhile and they've been overlooked for the past three years," Hillman said . "They do get overlooked … they get downplayed because of the conference."
"We definitely have to do more," Hillman continued. "You take somebody like Andy Dalton and put him at Oklahoma, he wins the Heisman. You take Ryan [Lindley] and put him at Alabama or [a team] like that, and he definitely wins the Heisman. It's a little different."
Ah, the perceived bias against non-BCS conferences. It'll probably never go away, but Hillman has a point to some extent. Mark Ingram rushed for 1,658 yards and 18 touchdowns the year he won the 2009 Heisman Trophy, numbers which are very close to what Hillman produced in his 2010 record-breaking year.
The difference of course, is that Ingram played for a powerhouse Alabama team in the tough Southeastern Conference, and the perception of how good a team is does play a part in a perception of how good a player is.
"A good quarterback's going to make a team good, and a good team's going to make a quarterback good," Lindley said. "It goes both ways."
San Diego State is not at the same level as an Alabama, but Hillman is happy where he is. He not only broke his school's freshman rushing record, but broke the record held by one of the greatest running backs of all time — Faulk. Hillman knows what he has to do this year.
"Just play well and win," he said.
"I have to just help my team. It's not what I can do, it's what I can help my team do. If we're winning and I'm doing good, then the awards come with that. If we're 2-10 and I have 2,000 yards, they're going to be saying, 'he's a guy on one of those teams.' You gotta win to get the attention."
Lindley seems to be of the same consensus, but he also relishes flying under the radar.
"I've never been a guy that's gone with the flow," he admitted, referring to some of the bigger schools which he says are becoming "football factories."
"I take pride on being an underdog," he said with conviction. Lindley's faith driven and talks with high-school students regularly, and although he would like to play in the NFL if given the opportunity, he's studying to become a high school teacher.
Lindley and Hillman both know they have to win a lot of games to get some attention from the Heisman voters. But if that phone rang and they were informed that they were a finalist?
"I'd say, 'thanks,'" Lindley slowly answered. "I'd thank God and be happy about it."
"That's every kid's dream," Hillman said. "Even if you don't win, being at the ceremony means a lot."
"I have dreams of being the best," he added, with his voice trailing off in the distance.
So far, both of them are on track to be the best quarterback and running back San Diego State has ever produced.
Maybe, it's enough to strike the pose.
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