When football America watches the telecast of the Broncos’ Sept. 5 season opener in Denver against the Baltimore Ravens, Ronnie Hillman knows what he’d like everyone to see.
“Come the opener, I want to be the guy back there,” Hillman said. “I can’t lie. I want it to be me and I’m pushing to be that guy.”
Running back will be one of the biggest depth chart issues to be resolved when Denver’s training camp opens July 25.
The Broncos released Willis McGahee, their most proven tailback, on June 13. That leaves Hillman, a 2012 draft pick, rookie Montee Ball and Knowshon Moreno, a 2009 draft pick coming off knee surgery, battling for the starting job. The Broncos made it clear during organized team activities and minicamp, when Hillman spent the majority of the time with the No. 1 offense, that he’s earned the first look.
But with quarterback Peyton Manning having had one-on-one tutorials with Ball about pass protection and pass routes, the Broncos appear ready to use the former Wisconsin star in some of those situations.
“We’re all just in there doing our thing,” Hillman said. “Everybody wants to play and I think all of us feel like we can play. I know it’s about production, that I have to produce to be in there. That’s how they’ll decide: who’s producing.”
Hillman needs to maintain his weight during the season, prove he can run between the tackles and avoid missteps in pass protection. He fell victim to the NFL grind last year. His weight had dropped below 180 pounds by the time the Broncos met the Ravens in the playoffs.
But his weight was up to 195 pounds when Denver’s offseason workouts started.
“Hopefully it means 5 more yards after contact,” Hillman said. “But I feel like I have the same speed to do what I need to do. I know I have to have both — have to hold up and have that speed.”
Hillman’s speed — he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.45 seconds before the 2012 draft — separates the former San Diego State star from Ball and the rest of Denver’s tailbacks. Also, the 21-year-old Hillman is the youngest player on the Denver roster.
Ball was a more productive college player — he had back-to-back seasons of 1,800 yards rushing to close out his Wisconsin career — and has made a smooth transition to Denver’s offense. “I attacked the playbook,” Ball said.
But Ball isn’t the breakaway threat that Hillman offers. Ball ran the 40-yard dash in 4.66 seconds at the NFL scouting combine.
Still, the idea of leaving their running game in the hands of young tailbacks isn’t keeping the Broncos up at night. It’s the type of situation Denver football-operations boss John Elway likes to see on the depth chart.
“We’re always going to be looking at some of those young guys to really step forward,” Elway said. “That’s what you want. You want to draft them, play them in your system.”
and prepare them for bigger roles. And when opportunities come for those bigger roles, they are ready.
“We want to push those young guys toward that, to want to have bigger roles. Ronnie fits in that category and we think Montee fits in that category. We’ll just see how it shakes out when camp starts and we get through the preseason. But this is what we want across the board, young guys stepping up for more.”