Hillman set to make first NFL start Sunday against the Jets
AP Pro Football Writer
ENGLEWOOD — Ronnie Hillman, the Denver Broncos’ speedy running back whose career has been scarred by fumbles, foibles and foul-ups, is set to make his first NFL start Sunday.
With Montee Ball (groin) sidelined, Hillman has taken snaps with the starters all week as the Broncos (3-1) prepare to visit the New York Jets (1-4).
“It should be fun. It’s a great environment,” Hillman said of MetLife Stadium, site of the Super Bowl, where Hillman was inactive for the biggest game of his career.
The third-year pro has waited a long time for the opportunity.
“Any competitive person, their patience is going to be tested when they’re not playing as much as they want to,” Hillman said. “So, I think that was definitely tested, and me being patient is paying off, just being ready when I’m called on.”
After the Broncos spent a third-round pick on the San Diego State speedster in 2012, a hamstring injury in training camp slowed Hillman, who ran for 330 yards as a rookie. He fell below 180 pounds by the time the playoffs rolled around and he was unable to keep the chains and clock moving in the Broncos’ infamous fizzle against the Baltimore Ravens.
Hillman was elevated to starting status that next summer after he bulked up to close to 200 pounds and Willis McGahee was released. But he had two fumbles that were returned for TDs in the preseason and slipped so far down the depth chart that by midseason he was usually a game-day inactive.
He was a healthy scratch for the Super Bowl.
Determined to bounce back from losing his grip on both the football and his starting job, Hillman again turned some heads at training camp this summer — only to again land in the coaches’ doghouse by the start of the season.
He was inactive for the opener and didn’t play in Week 2.
Before Sunday, his production this year read like this: two carries for 1 yard.
Then, Ball got hurt early in the second half against Arizona and Hillman came in and gave the Broncos’ ground game a much-needed spark, running for 64 yards on 15 carries in Denver’s 41-20 win.
This weekend he’ll face a Jets team that’s one of the league’s best against the run.
Of course, with Peyton Manning at quarterback, the top priority for a running back in Denver isn’t so much picking up the first down as it is picking up the blitz.
“I think Ronnie doesn’t get enough credit for the fact that he’ll go up there and meet a guy and he doesn’t get rocked back,” offensive coordinator Adam Gase said. “I mean, for his size, a lot of guys think they’re just going to run over him but he’s got, for whatever reason, he’s got that power to be able to sustain his blocks.
“And the other two guys (C.J. Anderson and Juwan Thompson) are thicker guys to begin with and they do a good job of staying stout, but they have made so many strides,” Gase said. “And right now I feel good about where we’re at on protection and those guys being able to step up and block linebackers.”
Manning said Hillman’s heavier load Sunday won’t be just physical.
“When you’re the starting back and you’re running out there in pregame warm-ups as a starting back, there’s a different hat that you wear,” Manning said. “So, we’re counting on him in the run game, pass game and pass protection. There is no question he has a burst that is pretty unique when he gets the ball in his hands and it’s our job to give him the space.”
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