Virginia linebacker D.J. Hill knows it’s unlikely he’ll secure a permanent spot in the Cavaliers’ starting lineup this season. But called into duty with senior LaRoy Reynolds sidelined for the time being, Hill is making the most of his opportunities.
Hill, a sophomore, finished with a team-high eight tackles in Virginia’s 27-7 loss at TCU this past weekend and it appears he will once again have a major role when the Cavaliers take on Louisiana Tech on Saturday at Scott Stadium.
It turns out Reynolds played with a cast on his hand during the second half at Georgia Tech two weeks ago, and the injury required surgery this past Friday. That suddenly thrust Hill into the limelight in Fort Worth, and he already has his sights set on proving he could be a permanent fixture once Reynolds graduates.
“I was waiting for an opportunity,” said Hill, who is playing weak-side linebacker. “I had a pretty good camp, but I felt like for the coaches to have confidence in me, they’d have to see it throughout the game. That’s how I looked at it going through last week. If I’m playing good this week, [it could] solidify or help get the front-running spot for next year at the position.”
Though he didn’t play much in the secondary growing up in Covington, Ga., Coach Mike London regards Hill as a cross between a strong safety and a linebacker and he’s capable of adding the pass-coverage element that is essential for his position. Though it was Hill’s first career start Saturday, Virginia often used him as part of its nickel package along with senior Steve Greer when TCU went with a lot of three- and four-wide receiver formations.
London said Hill graded out with “a winning percentage” in 61 plays and “did an admirable job.” Hill noted that stepping onto the field in a big spot was daunting at first.
“The first series was really shocking,” said Hill, referencing the drive that ended with TCU’s Brandon Carter making a one-handed catch and taking it 68 yards for a touchdown. “But after that I kind of settled in and was just playing football.”
How long Hill remains in such a prominent role remains to be seen. London has not indicated when Reynolds is expected to return from his surgery, other than to say it would be “soon.”Freshman Demetrie Brim is currently listed as the No. 2 weak-side linebacker behind Hill.
“One of the things that LaRoy brings to the group is a certain amount of passion and energy,” linebackers coach Vincent Brown said. “We’re trying to get the other guys to step it up and lead by example and play with a little more passion and energy and focus. They’re doing a good job.
“Last week, I thought D.J. played well for us, for the most part. He’s still a young player. Last week was his first time lining up in the game on defense. There will be some growing pains, we understand that.”
But the Cavaliers will likely need Hill to be at his versatile best against Louisiana Tech. The Bulldogs run a similar spread offense to TCU, except it might feature an even better balance between pass and run. Louisiana Tech is averaging close to 55 points per game this season and ranks 22nd in the country in terms of passing yards and rushing yards.
Expect Hill and the Cavaliers to be in their nickel package plenty Saturday.
“I played pretty good for my first game,” he said. “I had a couple mental mistakes, but not too many.”