Howard middle linebacker Rhoan Hill loves to watch Bryan Cox. Hill admires the reckless abandon with which the New York Jets' linebacker competes on every play.

But Hill also idolizes other linebackers, those from a different time. He loves to talk about the greats from before he was born, players such as Dick Butkus, Ray Nitschke and Tommy Nobis. Hill enjoys the intensity they brought to the game.

"I watch all of the older linebackers, but I really love Butkus," Hill said. "He was so mean. I'd like people to think of me that way."

Howard Coach Steve Wilson thinks of Hill himself as a throwback to the time of Hill's idols. After a year off because of knee surgery, the senior's strong return to lead this fall's Bison defense impresses Wilson all the more.

The Howard defense has been more consistent than last year, and Hill is a big reason. His presence in the middle anchors a young defense that sometimes has seven freshmen on the field.

"Nobis, [Mike] Curtis, [Willie] Lanier, he's [like them], he's the man in the middle," Wilson said. "As they say, he plays with an odor. When he's on the field, you can smell his presence."

The 6-foot-2, 245-pound Hill has been that way all season, making a quick transition back after the year off. He leads the Bison with 31 tackles in four games, including one forced fumble.

The Bison play a much more aggressive system this year. They attack, blitzing much more than last season. They'll need a big game from Hill Saturday when they take on Florida A&M, an offensive juggernaut that averaged 49.6 points per game last year during the regular season. A win could put the Bison in line for a run at the Heritage Bowl in December.

After a bit of a slow start in the opener at Jackson State, Hill quickly got back to speed. He easily can cover the field and do everything expected of a linebacker.

"He leads by example," cornerback Omar Evans said. "We didn't have a real big hitter last year, and he brings that back."

Even though the Bison did have a number of talented players last fall, they did lack one big hitter. Hill's big shots often set the tone, much as they did in Howard's surprisingly easy 32-20 victory over Texas Southern two weeks ago.

Texas Southern gained 470 yards rushing in a rout of Howard last year. But Hill was everywhere in this game, making many plays to help Howard hold Texas Southern to just 68 yards rushing.

"He's a man, he's not a baby," Howard defensive coordinator Luther Palmer said. "He takes on responsibility. He makes all the calls and brings the total package. He comes to play."

Hill started his first three seasons at Howard, including the 1996 black college national championship team. However, he tore the ACL in his knee during practice in spring 1998 and missed the season.

He had surgery in the summer of 1998 and worked relentlessly to prepare for this season. Hill said conquering his initial fears about the injury was the hardest part.

"The first two or three days after the surgery were the hardest things I've ever had," Hill said. "I was so worried that it might tear again."

Hill said he has recovered completely from the injury, even though he still does some rehabilitation on the knee each week. To that end, he knows the pressure will be on him Saturday.

But that's just fine with him. After all, the great older linebackers often faced similar challenges and won.

"I like the pressure because it motivates me," Hill said. "It makes me play better and harder because it makes me feel like all eyes are on me."