COLLEGE PARK, Md. — Perry Hills has attributes that any coach would input into a computer program designed to construct a successful quarterback, but his flaws have previously been well-exposed.
Hills spent the offseason before his final year at Maryland working to correct some of those issues. He also has a new coaching staff, a new offense and a clean slate after a nonlinear four-year journey to this point.
There might not be anything more important for the Terps’ ability to have a successful first season with new coach DJ Durkin than the months-long problem-solving session for Hills with offensive coordinator Walt Bell this offseason.
“My job for him is to make sure he’s in a position to be successful,” said Bell, a charismatic 32-year old coach who spent the past two seasons directing a prolific Arkansas State offense. “Really simply, the easiest way to make a quarterback successful is don’t ask him to do things that he can’t do. If you want your quarterback to struggle, ask him to do a bunch of things he doesn’t do really well.”
Hills has proven to be an adept runner and efficient at executing read-option plays. His greatest strengths are his work ethic and his toughness, something forged during his time as a successful wrestler and quarterback in his youth. His new coaches praised his ability to throw the ball downfield, something he wasn’t often asked to do in the previous four years.
He coordinated and led the team’s voluntary workouts during the summer. It’s not hard to discern why other football players respect him and look to him for leadership. His teammates gravitate to him, unless he’s looking for a new challenger to defeat at Call of Duty.
“Losing to me is the worst feeling on this earth. It’s like taking your heart and getting it crushed,” Hills said. “You just try to do everything to avoid that feeling. You have to hate losing so much that it is like death. That’s really what it is like to me.
“I compete to be the most competitive guy, because that’s really what you need in a team and as a leader.”
Bell joked earlier this week that after the first day of spring practice at Maryland, he wanted to get on a plane and go back to Jonesboro, Ark. While there were clearly things to work on with Hills, Bell had already identified some of these strengths in his new project.
“The first thing you realize about him is he’s as mentally tough as any kid I’ve ever been around,” Bell said. “He can get to a very dark place and survive there for a very long time.
“Name a competitive drill you can imagine any football player doing, and he wins every one of them as long as they involve who can grind the longest, who can be mentally toughest. It doesn’t matter what it is. Do a wall sit. He’ll do it for seven hours while everyone else falls down. Run, just run as fast as you can for as long as you can, and he will be the last one standing.”
His strengths are all welcome, and a starting place for Bell to decipher what parts of his fast-paced spread offense Hills can be successful with. There has also been plenty for Hills to work on.
Hills was a surprise starter as a true freshman for the Terps after C.J. Brown was lost for the season before it began. He was solid at times, inconsistent at others, before a season-ending torn ACL in mid-October.
Rehabbing his knee led him to one of those dark places Bell referenced. Brown was back the following season, and the coaching staff decided to redshirt Hills while he recovered.
“I was crushed, heartbroken (by the injury),” Hills said. “I tried to do everything I could to come back. When they decided to redshirt me that year, I was crushed again. Even if I wasn’t 100 percent at the time, in my mind I thought I was.”
Hills played very little the following season, Brown’s senior year, but Hills was back atop the depth chart at the start of the 2015 campaign. For someone who treats losing like death, it was a particularly miserable season.
The Terps lost often, and Hills struggled. He didn’t start one of Maryland’s three victories, and he wasn’t the pitcher of record in the season finale. Caleb Rowe replaced him and led a dramatic comeback victory against Rutgers.
Hills completed 90 of 180 passes and threw 13 interceptions in nine games.
“There were a bunch of games where I could barely roll out of bed,” Hills said. “After the Ohio State game, I kind of had to waddle out of bed, I was so beat up. But you have to push through it. The line is getting hit every play, the receivers … what makes me any different?”
The mission this offseason has been simple. Hills said he worked on “some little things” but the end result could be an overhaul of his ability as a passer.
He went home to Pittsburgh and worked with a mentor from his days at Central Catholic High School, Tony Colaizzi. He worked with Gus Frerotte, another Western Pennsylvania quarterback who spent 15 years in the NFL. He worked with Bell.
Hills worked on his footwork, focusing on using his hips to generate power more and his tendency to overstride on throws less.
He wanted to be able to make quicker decisions. He had to put four years of some positives but also a lot of negatives behind him. And he had to learn a new offense, of course.
“We have cleaned up a lot physically,” Bell said. “I think for him, mentally, he’s just in a better place. I think he’s much more confident in what his job description entails. Keeping him in a place where, regardless of what we make (the defense) look like, he knows how to get to his answer, he knows where the ball belongs.”
The new-look Terps, with a reconstructed Hills named the starting quarterback for the third time in his career, begin a season with minimal expectations from anyone outside the program Saturday against local FCS program Howard.
The last time Maryland began a season with a new coach and a senior quarterback was 2001. Coach Ralph Friedgen and quarterback Shaun Hill helped the Terps to an ACC championship and Orange Bowl berth. Hill went from unknown junior college transfer to ACC champion to 15-year NFL veteran.
There are plenty of reasons to believe such a turnaround is not possible in 2016 in College Park. The team Friedgen inherited was more talented and just needed a coaching upgrade. The conference was considerably weaker. Hill, as it turned out, was a future NFL quarterback.
There are similarities, though, between Hill and Hills beyond their names and year of eligibility. Hill earned plaudits for his guile and leadership abilities before people began to realize he was a pretty good passer as well. He wasn’t a pure dual-threat quarterback, but the Terps were effective with the option when Friedgen wanted to use it.
And there was a significant coaching upgrade before his senior season. That appears to be the case again.
“The things that Perry does really well is that he’s tough, rugged and has a really nice deep ball, which was a big surprise for me, especially when you look at some of last year’s tape,” Bell said. “For me, it’s building around those skills and making sure we put him in a position to be rugged, make sure we put him in a position to make the throws that he throws well.
“He does not like to lose. He loves to compete. Anytime that you have those two things, regardless of the skill set, all the other things that people think are really important about the position, if you’ve got those two things, you at least got a chance at a successful year.”