Hill’s unconventional climb making Saints a greater threat
METAIRIE, La. (AP) — Saints third-string quarterback Taysom Hill never envisioned launching his body across the path of a punted ball when he arrived in New Orleans last season to serve as an understudy to record-setting passer Drew Brees.
Yet his momentum-changing blocked punt in last week’s comeback victory at Tampa Bay became just his latest highlight that has nothing to do with dropping back from the line of scrimmage and throwing a football.
It has become increasingly apparent this season that the 6-foot-2, 220-pound Hill has the potential to become the NFL’s ultimate utility player. And if doing so improves the Saints’ Super Bowl odds, Hill’s game.
“Standing on the sideline with a hat on and a clip board and a sweat shirt is not as fun as doing what I’m doing,” Hill said.
The 28-year-old Hill’s embrace of his unconventional role comes with risk, particularly in light of his background. He had major injuries in four of his five seasons at BYU: a knee injury, a bone fracture in his leg, a foot fracture and a hyper-extended elbow.
But at this point, Hill doesn’t see himself playing special teams throughout his career.
“I thought that I would come in and develop as a quarterback and have the opportunity to compete to play at quarterback,” Hill said. “That’s what I’m still hopeful for.”
In the meantime, Hill has made a value judgment. He loves playing, so he’s willing to make his skill set available in ways he might not have previously considered.
“I’m grateful that the coaches here had a vision for me and then created opportunities,” Hill said. “That’s unique and I’m grateful for the coaching staff here that had a vision, but then they took a chance, right? Because if things don’t go well, they look silly.”
Instead, Hill has already made enough plays on special teams that Saints coach Sean Payton figures Hill, if he wanted to, could make a sustained NFL career out of doing just that, much like Steve Tasker did with Buffalo or Fred McAfee did in New Orleans.
“Yet, the difference is, I think he can be a quarterback. I think that’s the plan,” Payton said. “The plus is he has that athleticism, size, and speed. He can do a lot of things.
“He has very good savvy,” Payton continued. “He’s catching. He’s rushing. He’s tackling. He’s running. He’s throwing. I mean, he’s just a good football player.”
Hill has five special teams tackles this season. He’s returned a kickoff for 47 yards and helped convert two fake punts into first downs as an upback, one running and one throwing. He has even lined up at tight end.
At times, Payton inserts Hill at quarterback in place of Brees for read-option runs, one of which went for a 1-yard touchdown. Hill also completed a 44-yard pass to Michael Thomas at Minnesota.
Hill said that if he does get his shot to play quarterback more regularly, he wants to be more of a traditional passer, albeit one who can run when prudent.
“I’d much rather throw for a touchdown than run for one,” Hill said. “But I think there are elements of my game that make it difficult on a defense and I think it would be dumb not to take advantage of that.”
In high school in Idaho, Hill was a standout football player and basketball player. On the court, his size, strength and jumping ability — he can dunk — led coaches to play him at power forward. He was a strong rebounder, and with his background as a quarterback, had little trouble passing out of double-teams.
He had small college basketball offers but initially committed to play football at Stanford before deciding that BYU would suit him better after he completed a Mormon mission.
He began his NFL career as an undrafted free agent with Green Bay last season. When he was waived at the end of training camp, Payton signed Hill to New Orleans’ active roster. Late last season, the Saints dabbled with putting Hill on special teams to make use of his athleticism, and he quickly started being the first down the field and making tackles.
“He’s so good at it you’re not going to have him just sitting there holding the clipboard,” Saints quarterbacks coach Joe Lombardi said. “He’s got to go play.”
Running back Alvin Kamara said Hill has earned respect across the Saints’ locker room.
“He does it all. He’s a tough player,” Kamara said. “A lot of things he does, that’s not things that one person does. You usually get a couple of people to do all the things he does.”
In New Orleans, Hill has captured the imagination of many fans. The Superdome crowd rumbles with anticipation when he takes the field.
“Obviously, I’m blessed athletically to create opportunities like this, but I think the moral of my story that can relate to anyone is you can overcome a lot in life if you’re willing to spend the time, energy and effort,” Hill began.
And then there’s the part about being adventurous enough to seize unanticipated opportunities.
“That comes from doing something you really love, right? And I love football,” Hill said. “I love competing and that’s why it was an easy answer for me when they asked me to do different things. So if you’re doing something you love, you might experience setbacks, but overall you’re going to be willing to work at whatever it is or adjust on the fly to whatever situation comes up.”