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An uphill battle: USU's Joe Hill quietly stepping out of rehab and back into the depth chart

By Tavin Stucki

For the Deseret News

Published: Tuesday, April 8 2014 6:05 p.m. MDT

Utah State Aggies running back Joe Hill (32) runs against Weber St. during NCAA football in Logan Saturday, Sept. 14, 2013. USU won 70-6.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

LOGAN, Utah — Utah State running back Joe Hill is a quiet guy. Teammates and coaches alike say he’s soft-spoken and doesn’t talk much — at least until he gets to know them better.

It’s similar to how the Fullerton, Calif., native began his career at Utah State, quietly playing behind NFL-caliber backs like Robert Turbin, Mike Smith and Kerwynn Williams — quiet until he stepped into the spotlight as the featured Aggie running back in the 2013 season.

“I was waiting for a long time. Turb. Mike. Kerwynn. I was waiting my turn and I was ready,” Hill said. “It was a great experience. I learned a lot from them and I was waiting till I get my time so I could use all that.”

Hill was the guy — THE running back. Then when he inured his ACL in the game against San Jose State partway through the 2013 season, everything came crashing down.

“(I was) shocked,” Hill said. “I didn’t believe it. It felt like it was nothing.”

But a season-ending injury was far from “nothing.” Hill’s 5-yards-per-carry average in the first half of the season was desperately missed, and combined with the bad luck of suffering other devastating injuries at key positions, the Aggies lost two straight games.

“It’s tough,” said head coach Matt Wells. “It’s the brute nature and reality of football. He was playing really well until that point and playing very, very confident at a very high level.”

Hill’s close friend and teammate Frankie Sutera said the knee injury was hard on Hill, forcing him to watch from the sidelines as the Aggies regrouped and finished the season 9-5 with a victory in the Poinsettia Bowl.

“I felt real bad for him,” Sutera said. “It’s definitely hard for him. I know last year towards the end of the season he was kind of bummed out he wasn’t playing. He was happy for us, but he really wanted to be in there and playing and helping us out.”

During the offseason, Hill worked hard through rehabilitation. Having just passed his six-month mark of rehab April 4, Hill is antsy to be back working out with his teammates again.

“I’m almost finished,” he said. “It’s been a tough process but I’ve learned a lot. Hopefully it will pay off when I can get back in summer workouts.

“I was a little bit down,” he added about starting rehab, “but I knew I had to do what I had to do to get through it and get my knee healed all the way. But now it’s just kind of repetitive and I’m ready to get out to practice and play.

Hill hasn’t participated in spring football team workouts, nor will he take part in the annual Blue-White Spring Game on Saturday, but that’s not to say he hasn’t been an asset to the team.

“Right now he’s helping the young guys out with their assignments and getting them more comfortable with the offense,” running backs coach Dave Ungerer said. “He’s kind of like my assistant coach.”

Between minutes on the water treadmill, repetitions with the medicine ball, stretch band or other exercises, coaches and teammates say Hill has shown how much he wants to regain his health.

“You can tell he’s anxious, way anxious,” Sutera said. “I keep telling him not to push it too hard because we don’t want him to do something stupid and get back too early. Just wait it out and heal up and get back ready to go.”

When Hill finishes rehab, he’ll still be one of the quietest guys on the team: The question then will be how much noise his knee will let him make on the field.

“He’s a hard worker,” Sutera said. “The way he works he’s going to come back strong for sure just because he’s grinding every day.”

tstuckinews@gmail.com

Tavin Stucki is a senior journalism student at Utah State University and editor-in-chief of The Utah Statesman, the Aggie campus newspaper. Twitter: @DesNewsAggies @StuckiAggies

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