Daxton Hill was a highly-touted recruit coming into Michigan. A five-star safety who flipped from the Wolverines to Alabama and then back again, there were talks that Hill could get significant playing time, or even start immediately. But before the season even started, coaches put a damper on his hype.
Jim Harbaugh said at a preseason press conference that the freshman safety would mostly play special teams. Safeties and special teams coach Chris Partridge said he was the fourth safety, behind not only senior Josh Metellus and junior Brad Hawkins, but also junior J’Marick Woods. The coaches stuck to their words, and on the field, Hill was quiet through the early goings of the season.
As a gunner on the punt coverage team, Hill flew down the field after Will Hart’s kick. Avery Young, the Rutgers returner, fielded the ball, then suddenly, Hill tackled him and pinned him to the ground.
Young likely didn’t know what hit him. But the Wolverines did.
“He’s the fastest guy on kickoff, on punt,” Partridge said Wednesday. “He’s maybe the fastest guy on the team.”
Two weeks ago, at Wisconsin, Hill looked tentative on punt coverage, hesitating when he should have hit the gas. But he knew the mistakes he’d made and worked hard to fix them.
It may have been that one hit on special teams that propelled him back into the spotlight, but behind the scenes, he’d already laid the foundations for a breakout game.
“(He) practices like a maniac and really, really takes coaching,” said assistant special teams coordinator Jay Harbaugh. “So when you watch a game — like the week before, there was a couple plays he didn’t make, and then the next week, and he makes them, it’s really cool.”
Hill also saw time at safety Saturday, picking up four total tackles. Sure, the opportunity came partially because Woods was out with an undisclosed injury, but Partridge admitted himself that they wouldn’t have put Hill in the game if they didn’t think he was ready.
There are still some improvements Hill has to make, like learning when you can run at full speed to hit someone and when you can’t and how to adjust to motion. But by all indications, he’s been progressing in those areas.
“Dax has been practicing hard each week, he’s just been getting better,” said senior cornerback Lavert Hill. “His mind’s starting to slow down, and he’s just getting a feel for the games so it’s definitely a big jump in the past couple weeks.”
Both Jim Harbaugh and Partridge want to get Hill more playing time, but like with most freshmen looking to work their way into the rotation, there’s a dichotomy. If Hill gets significant minutes this early, it’s probably because one of his more experienced teammates isn’t playing well, something no coach wants.
So while Hill will probably stay the fourth safety for now, he’s impressed enough that he could still carve out a niche on defense. Partridge preaches playing to everyone’s strengths with as much depth at the position as the Wolverines have, and against the Scarlet Knights, Hill frequently came out on third-down packages because of his speed.
“He’s a great cover guy,” Partridge said. “He’s got elite coverage skills. His thing is just making sure we’re training his eyes and he understands what route combinations could possibly coming based on who he’s defending, splits, all that stuff, but he’s getting there.”
Of course, one game against Rutgers isn’t going to suddenly rocket Hill up the depth chart, but his hype train has regained steam, and for good reason. Especially with Woods still questionable, Hill has emerged as a reliable backup option in the secondary, and one with upside, to boot.
To see that upside, all you need to do is watch again as Dax Hill flies into the Scarlet Knights’ punt returner and waves his fingers afterward, as if making an introduction.