Saturday night’s College Football Playoff clash between powerhouse programs Clemson and Ohio State lived up to the billing, both in terms of entertainment and the quality play of the numerous draft prospects competing. While future first-round picks such as Trevor Lawence, Chase Young, Justin Fields, Isaiah Simmons, Jeffery Okudah, and others drew the eyes of many, lost in the shuffle was Ohio State wide receiver K.J. Hill.
Being lost in the shuffle, in a way, isn’t new for Hill during his collegiate career. Despite breaking David Boston’s Ohio State record for most career receptions, Hill has never been the leading receiver on his own team in receiving yards or receiving touchdowns.
Hill posted six receptions on Saturday night, finishing his collegiate career with at least one reception in all 50 games he appeared in, an ode to how steady and reliable he’s been throughout his career.
Hill has been competing for targets with a deep and crowded wide receiver room during his time at Ohio State. Back in his redshirt freshman season in 2016, Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett was also throwing to Curtis Samuel, Noah Brown, Parris Campbell, Terry McLaurin, Johnnie Dixon, and Binjimen Victor.
Despite marginal production for Hill during that 2016 season, he’s posted at least 56 receptions in each of the past three seasons. On top of that, his receiving touchdowns have increased yearly, from three in 2017, to six in 2018, all the way up to 10 this season. Through the first six games of this season, Hill had caught 171 passes on 223 career targets, good for a completion percentage of 76.7%.
For his pro projection, Hill feels like one of the easier evaluations among the entire class. Due to the amount of games he’s started, there is plenty to see on the tape over the years. The productive veteran receiver should slide right into the complementary role he’s played at Ohio State, as they’ve had receiver depth charts full of NFL-caliber receivers.
Hill seemingly has inside and outside versatility but took the vast majority of his reps in the slot during college. Still, Hill should be able to take reps as the “Z” receiver at the next level. His ability as a route runner can be described in one word: smooth. Fluid, flexible and aware, Hill’s route breaks have no wasted movement, as he’s able to keep his frame low. His cuts have a particular sharpness to them; Hill is able to open up his hips and create passing windows out of his breaks.
Ohio State WR K.J. Hill, recent @seniorbowl commit and the Buckeyes all-time leader in receptions, is predictably a polished and fluid route runner with soft hands. I love his route pacing and how naturally he can drop his hips to get out of breaks coming downhill. #NFLDraft pic.twitter.com/SWyrqdo2us— Brad Kelly (@CoachBKelly) December 30, 2019
Hill won’t be mistaken as an elite athlete as far as NFL-quality wide receivers go, but he makes the most out of his physical gifts by perfecting his route running technique. Hill operates well in tight spaces, closing down the cushion of defensive backs to make them uncomfortable, then accelerating away for separation.
Coming onto the screen from the right side - K.J. Hill closes down the cushion of the defensive back, keeps his frame low and sticks outside his frame to accelerate to the slant. Flashed his eyes to the sideline at the top of his route to move to defensive back outside. #NFLDraft pic.twitter.com/nmRr69N4k4— Brad Kelly (@CoachBKelly) December 30, 2019
Hill won’t blow the doors off the 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine, but the way he’s able to move laterally and avoid contact before accelerating has made him effective in the vertical third of the route tree. With defensive backs having to respect Hill’s vertical game, it’s opened up the entire route tree for him in the intermediate. Hill’s traits should lead to a seamless transition as a receiver who will be relied on to keep an NFL offense on schedule.
Before the College Football Playoff semifinal game on Saturday, it was announced that Hill would be competing at the Senior Bowl in January. The wide receiver vs. defensive back 1-on-1 periods will be an opportunity for Hill to feature his route running, a segment of practice that former Ohio State wide receiver Terry McLaurin thrived in last year.
The Senior Bowl game will likely be the last impression we get of Hill on a football field before he enters the NFL, and there’s another strength of his that he can showcase during it. While playing with the more mobile Justin Fields at quarterback this season, Hill showed prowess at finding space once the quarterback extended the play. This skill during scramble drills helps his projection as a possession receiver who is always open.
If Hill is able to show out against some of the best defensive backs in the NFL Draft class during his time in Mobile, it could solidify him as a mid-round prospect in a loaded wide receiver class. There’s little separation among the middle of the wide receiver crop, but Hill has the inside track with his career production and opportunity to compete in the most prestigious all-star game ahead of him.