In 2017, the Oklahoma State offense was a machine that marched up and down the field at will.
Running back Justice Hill exploded onto the scene in 2016 by leading all FBS freshman in rushing with 1,142 yards. He would follow that up in 2017 with 1,467 yards, 15 touchdowns and, for the second year in a row, more than five yards per carry average.
Now a junior with two games of the 2018 season already in the books for the Cowboys, it’s clear that for the third straight year Hill is going to be a problem for opposing defenses.
South Alabama 9/8/18
The Cowboys have hosted South Alabama the last two seasons for “tune-up” games in early September. With a final score of 55-13, the Cowboys were never in any danger. Justice Hill had a relatively quiet game by only producing 43 all purpose yards on ten touches. He did score two touchdowns to help bury the Jaguars, though.
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Hill has been electric as a runner since arriving at Oklahoma State. His work as a pass catcher leaves more to be desired. Oklahoma State has shown an effort to get Hill more involved in the passing game in 2018, and his first receiving touchdown came against South Alabama on a flare screen out of the backfield. Hill gets some help from his teammate with a nasty block on the safety, leaving Hill one on one on the perimeter with a cornerback. With his speed and elusiveness Hill easily bypasses the defender and strolls into the end zone.
Missouri State 8/30/18
Oklahoma State hosted Missouri State to kick off their 2018 campaign and the game went just as everyone expected with the Cowboys blowing out the Bears 58-17. Justice Hill ran for 122 yards and a touchdown on 10 carries, including a run he broke off for 92 yards.
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Hill gets the ball running downhill with seven blockers in front of him out of a full house set. One of the traits that sets Hill apart from other backs is his vision. Watch how he’s able to let the blocks in front of him take place. He takes a second with a small jump cut to find a hole and, once he does, he explodes through splitting the second and third level defenders nearly turning in a touchdown. Granted its Missouri State defenders that Hill blazes by, but it’s what happens before he crosses the line of scrimmage that most impresses me.
Virginia Tech 12/28/17
The Cowboy’s closed out the 2017 season in a 30-21 win against Virginia Tech in the Camping World Bowl. A great matchup between a well-coached defense and a dynamic offensive scheme. In what was a fun game to watch, Virginia Tech out-gained the Cowboys on offense but two turnovers and some big offensive plays helped the Cowboys pull away late. Justice Hill played a solid game with 23 carries for 120 yards and a touchdown.
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On this crucial third and 11 Hill streaks for a 31 yard run on a left outside stretch. His vision is on display again as he beautifully recognizes a crease, stops, lets his blockers set up in front of him, and takes off to gain a first down and set up Oklahoma State for the game clinching field goal and postseason win. Hill dazzles with a combination of vision and speed.
Iowa State 11/11/17
In what was a 49-42 barn burner between two high powered Big-12 offenses, Justice Hill led all players in scrimmage yards with 169 yards on 31 touches and three touchdowns. These Big-12 conference games sometimes need to be evaluated while keeping in mind that the offensive talent and coaching is usually far superior to those of the defense.
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Hill was very impressive against Iowa State, as he ran with consistent toughness and speed. In the middle of the second quarter, Hill nearly takes this outside zone run to the house as he bounces off a defender while coming out of the hole. It’s a great display of contact balance. According to Sports Info Solutions, Hill ranked 36th out of 167 running back’s with 3.11 yards after contact per attempt on zone runs last year. He’s then able to dip and weave through arm tackles and oncoming defenders before he finds the sideline and uses his speed to take the ball to the two-yard line. Then, justice for Hill as he is given the chance to carry the ball in for a score two plays later.
In one of the most exciting and fun college football games in recent memory, the Cowboys would fall to the Oklahoma Sooners in what was a 62-52 shootout. Justice Hill saw his fair share in this one as he rushed for a career high 228 yards on 30 touches and scored two touchdowns.
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This is another simple outside zone run but this time with a jet motion going across the formation. According to Sports Info Solutions, Justice Hill was 36th out of 167 running backs, averaging 5.8 yards per rush attempt on zone runs. The jet motion is critical on this play as it moves a safety out of the box, giving the Cowboy’s offense a 5 on 5 advantage in the box, almost ensuring a successful run. A run on third and nine is an unconventional call but Hill makes his coaches look smart as he bursts through the hole and is untouched until he’s almost five yards past the first down marker. Oklahoma safety Robert Barnes (20) learns the hard way that even though Justice Hill is a small running back, he is a strong and tough runner.
Hill’s running this game was very impressive but it was one of only two games in 2017 when Hill did not haul in a single catch. He’s not the most natural receiver but he can occasionally make some plays in the passing game. This wasn’t one of those times.
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Late in the fourth quarter, trailing 55-52 on a third and 20, Oklahoma State dials up an empty back quads left formation with Hill being the closest slot receiver to the ball. He’s targeted before he’s able to cross the first down marker on his deep cross route and the ball is thrown just a bit behind him. The most inexcusable part of the play is the ball bouncing off of Hill’s facemask and into a defender’s arms. A bad drop at an even worse time, the Cowboys are lucky a targeting penalty bails them out. They would retain possession but it was not enough to pull off the win.
Of the four games I watched from 2017, Hill looked the most inconsistent against Texas Christian. He made some bad decisions in his cuts and just did not trust his blockers. He ran behind a backup left tackle and left guard which may have played a part in Hill’s indecision on this day.
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There are many plays similar to this when Hill looks hesitant to cut off his blocks and runs into a crowd of defenders for a minimum gain. This play is especially strange because Hill slows down and sees the massive cut-back lane. There is only one linebacker standing between Hill and a massive gain but he declines to take on the backer 1 on 1 in the hole and opts for a gain of two yards running into a pile of bodies.
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A bit earlier in the game the Horned Frogs are already threatening to pull away when the Cowboys are faced with a big fourth and three. Hill’s number is called on a simple inside zone play. This time Hill is decisive and runs straight ahead. Many people will cite Hill’s size in an attempt to slight him. However, in this and other instances, Hill uses his size to his advantage and slips through the hole like smoke through a keyhole for a first down. Hill finishes off the run by breaking through a couple of arm tackles and delivers a blow to his tackler as he moves the chains and keeps the Pokes in the game. According to Sports Info Solutions, Hill had a 13.6% broken tackle percentage in 2017 placing 65th out of 167 running backs.
Outlook for 2018
I was very impressed with Justice Hill after doing a deep dive into the 2017 season. His speed, vision, elusiveness and toughness are his best traits. He has shown very good work in pass protection and can make some plays catching the ball out of the backfield. He needs to work on his hands and consistency catching the football.
While some critics may point to his size, it does not concern me. Hill compares to Darren Sproles and Tarik Cohen. Hill’s small stature can be used to his advantage hiding behind linemen and staying naturally lower to the ground than those who are trying to tackle him.
Hill runs with a naturally low pad level that translates into power and balance through contact.
Although he is fast and has breakaway speed, he seems to be quicker than fast. By that I mean that Hill is harder to pinpoint and tackle in close confined areas of the field than it is to chase him down from behind in a foot race. But make no mistake, he is very fast and can take it to the house if given a lane.
Pass protection is crucial for running backs and Justice Hill delivers in that area as well. From the games I watched Justice Hill is a good to very good pass protector. Even though his size results in a lot of mismatches physically, Hill is as physical a blocker as he is a runner. He finishes blocks with the same intensity he uses to finish runs.
Of the six games I watched I never saw Hill put the ball on the ground. As we all know ball security is job security.
Hill has been a bell cow back for the Cowboys leading them with 206 and 268 carries respectively the last two years. He is going to play the same role in 2018. With the two great receivers gone and a new quarterback behind center for the Cowboys this year, I could see Hill putting up the same numbers.
While there might be better, bigger and more complete backs eligible to come out in 2018, Justice Hill has built a very good resume. With another solid season in 2018 he could see himself come off the board as early as round 2 or 3 in the NFL Draft as long as his health holds.
With Hill being draft eligible following the 2018 season and the brutal nature of the running back position, I could see Hill deciding to skip his senior season at Oklahoma State and start cashing NFL checks as soon as this spring.