NFL should roll dice on Terps QB Hill

January 01, 2002|By Mike Preston

MIAMI - Shaun Hill doesn't have many attributes of the good quarterbacks who played before him at the University of Maryland, like the arm strength of Boomer Esiason, athletic ability of Neil O'Donnell or natural throwing motion of Frank Reich or Stan Gelbaugh.

But an NFL team needs to take a gamble on Hill. He isn't good enough to be selected in the early rounds, but does have enough potential for a team to sign him as a free agent. They could stash him on the developmental squad for two to three years, and then see what happens. Why not?

Hill can't be any worse than Minnesota No. 3 quarterback-turned- starter Spergon Wynn. If Hill fails, then the watered-down NFL remains a league that has been quarterback-deprived for more than a decade.

There's nothing pretty about Hill. A scouting report may read: Average arm strength. Good short to intermediate thrower, but questionable on the long ball. Average speed, but has high intelligence.

Oh, two other things: 11-3 as a starter and as tough as the shell of a turtle.

Sounds like most quarterbacks in the NFL these days. That's the trend - find a smart guy and ask him not to make mistakes. But a lot of teams haven't given Hill a look. When one high-ranking NFL personnel director was asked about Hill recently, he replied: "Isn't he that little running back at Maryland?"

Actually, he is the quarterback of No. 6 Maryland, which is playing No. 5 Florida in the Orange Bowl tomorrow night, the same Terps who averaged 35.5 points and scored a school-record 390 points this season under first-year coach Ralph Friedgen.

That's one of the reasons I would take a gamble on Hill. He threw for 2,380 yards and 13 touchdowns in only one season in a pro-style offense. Last season was basically a wash because a shoulder sprain forced the Hutchinson Junior College transfer to miss five games.

But he wouldn't have learned much under former Maryland coach Ron Vanderlinden anyway. All he wanted was for Hill to hand off to halfback LaMont Jordan.

With Friedgen, Hill has learned about pre-snap reads and audibles. The Terps run an offense that includes an option, I formation, two tight ends and four-receiver sets. But it's still pro-style-based.

"Shaun is practicing very well right now," said Friedgen of his 6-foot-3, 225-pound senior quarterback. "His decision-making has been excellent, and he's maturing into the type of quarterback I'd like to have another year."

"They'll do the play-action fakes, spread it out a little more, to me, it's a pro-style offense," said Joe Hortiz, a Ravens college scout. "He has come along. Last year, he was a junior college transfer battling it out for the starting job. Now, he is the guy with a year of experience of having played in the ACC.

"Friedgen had success working with Joe Hamilton and other quarterbacks at Georgia Tech, and I think he helped Shaun understand the game. I heard he picked it up fairly easily, and has blossomed under the system."

Friedgen basically had one season to nurture Hill. Watch Hill play, and you can still see some rawness. There are times when he makes bad throws because his mechanics are wrong, or he becomes too eager instead of waiting for the play to develop.

But he is so resilient, the symbol of Maryland's football program this season. No one expected the Terps to win the ACC this season, and certainly not play in the Orange Bowl. Every time the Terps were about to go down, Hill would bring them back, like he did with a last-minute drive against Georgia Tech to tie the game in regulation, and later with another touchdown drive in the final seconds against North Carolina State.

That speaks volumes about the person and the player. A winner.

"The best thing is that he is an athlete," Hortiz said. "He drove them down the field against N.C. State and against Georgia Tech to set up the game-tying field goal. He is very productive in that sense. He has some inconsistencies as far as throwing, but when they've needed him most, he shakes off those inconsistencies."

Hill is ready for life after football, but he would love an NFL opportunity. He thrives on the underdog role. Outside of the ACC, nobody knows him. Here at the Orange Bowl, he is the other quarterback to Florida's highly acclaimed sophomore Rex Grossman.

When people talk about stopping the Gators' high-powered offense, they often mention you have to stop Grossman, running back Earnest Graham and receivers Jabar Gaffney and Reche Caldwell. Ask about stopping Maryland's offense, you hear about the running game and tailback Bruce Perry.

Hill doesn't get much respect, but NFL scouts should take a chance. There is still some potential that needs to be tapped.

"It depends on the needs and what teams are comfortable with," Hortiz said. "Some team may say, `Let's get a third-team quarterback and see what we can develop, find a guy with some intangibles.' Another team might be looking for help now. Will he get drafted? That's the flip of the coin. He's tough, a competitor, that's for sure."

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