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Future back to the past

Posted May 15, 2014

There are those that may be surprised BenJarvus Green-Ellis is still a Bengal six days after they took LSU running back Jeremy Hill in the second round of the NFL Draft. But not Frank Wilson, the college position coach for both.

 No surprise that rookie running back Jeremy Hill is already clerking for The Law Firm since he shares some football lineage with BenJarvus Green-Ellis.

There are those that may be surprised BenJarvus Green-Ellis is still a Bengal six days after they took LSU running back Jeremy Hill in the second round of the NFL Draft. But not Frank Wilson, the college position coach for both.

“Benny is reliable, he’s accountable. He’s all the things that make it hard for an organization to just do away with a pro football player like that,” Wilson said this week as he took a break from recruiting for the Tigers.

Green-Ellis’ status is unclear, but the consummate pro nicknamed The Law Firm is still here. The Bengals are balancing many things, among them injuries, how quickly Hill picks up the offense, and the state of the proposed 55-man roster. But chief of those is treating Green-Ellis with the respect he’s earned during six impeccable years in the league as a student of the game and a leader in the locker room.

But there’s no question that Hill is the big back of the future to be teamed in the backfield with last year’s NFL Rookie of the Year finalist Giovani Bernard.  The 233-pound Hill met Green-Ellis for the first time Monday, but he feels like he’s known him a lot longer because Wilson is always talking about him. He’s wasted no time clerking for him.

“He’s been great. When we’ve been on the field, I’ve been asking him what’s next, how do you do this and that, and he’s been very helpful with that,” Hill said this week. “I heard tons about him in college. He’s a great guy to model.”

Green-Ellis turns 29 in July, middle-age for an NFL running back and can it be that long ago? The Bengals just signed free agent rookie running back Jeff Scott out of Mississippi six years after the Patriots inked BJGE from Wilson’s tutelage at Ole Miss following the draft. Wilson sees a lot of similarities in Green-Ellis and Hill. Especially when it comes to being conscientious with the ball.

“He’s the closest thing to BenJarvus when it comes to preparing himself for the season, for a game,” Wilson said. “One of the traits he and Benny have (is being conscientious). BenJarvus is probably the most astute, attention-to-detail back I ever had. He’s very mature in his approach. That’s the way he’s wired mentally. His social life, his personal life are all geared around his professional career and how he acts on and off the field. Jeremy is like that in many ways.”

When it comes to ball security, there’s not much to choose.  According to profootballreference.com, Green-Ellis never fumbled at Indiana or Ole Miss in a total of 920 carries, setting the stage for his first 589 NFL carries without a fumble that are the most to start a career since World War II. Wilson confirmed that Hill fumbled once in 345 carries at LLSU.

“That’s how they were brought up and trained. It’s all about the ball,” Wilson said. “You bring it back to our team. It’s been entrusted in your hands. You’ve got 85 scholarship players. Out of all 85 players on this team, we chose you to put the ball in your hands. You have a moral obligation to represent this program, this institution by any and all means by protecting and taking care of that ball.”

Another trait they share is brains. Wilson says Hill’s football I.Q. is off the charts. So is his awareness of history. Hill knows what has come before him in Bengals’ annals. He only remembers Corey Dillon playing for the Patriots, but he knows he started here.

“This organization has had its share of big backs,” Hill said. “You go back to Rudi Johnson and those guys and they’ve had big guys that have had successful careers.”

The Big Back Theory comes straight out of the Paul Brown days on the frozen field in Cleveland and it played well on the Riverfront Stadium turf in the rough-and-tumble AFC Central of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Now that it has all evolved into the AFC North grind of four top 10 defenses, big backs are in again with Hill and Le’Veon Bell coming via the draft to Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, respectively, the past two years in the second round, and 214-pound former Texan Ben Tate landing in Cleveland. And watch for 220-pound Bernard Pierce to get more touches in Baltimore in wake of the Ray Rice saga.

Last year’s drafting of the 205-pound Bernard gave the Bengals a threat to score on any of his touches. What they’ve been missing from their most recent big backs is the ability to break long ones. The last one who did it consistently was the 6-1, 225-pound Dillon. During his seven seasons as a Bengal, Dillon had nine touchdown runs of at least 30 yards. In the 10 seasons since, the Bengals have had three by different backs.

Hill isn’t Dillon, but he brings home-run power on every pitch.

“He has short area quickness, great vision and balance. He’s deceptively fast,” Wilson said. “He does not get caught from behind. He can hit the home run. He’s had several 50-yard runs in the SEC where he just ran away from secondary defenders and it’s at a consistent rate.”

Last year, Hill had six runs of at least 50 yards. The last time the Bengals had a run of 50, 195-pound Bernard Scott scooted for 61 in 2009. The last time a big back rambled for 50? Rudi Johnson went on a 52-yarder in 2004.

“You’re getting a guy that does it all,” Wilson said. “I’d call him a complete back.”

The so-called Trend of Trends is how NFL teams are de-valuing running backs and how last week’s draft solidified what has been unfolding the last couple of seasons in a pass-happy league. But truth be told, the Bengals have been finding value in the second round for years at running back.

Three of their top six rushers, including Dillon, the franchise’s all-time leader, are second-rounders. Bernard, the 2014 projected starter who has already set a franchise record for most catches by a back in a season, came in the second round last year.

Hill figures to be the change-of-pace back at some point while Bernard gets the bulk of the carries. Wilson says his strength is he can play on all three downs.

“Short-yardage, goal line, he doesn’t have to come off the field,” Wilson said. “He’s excellent running between the tackles and on the perimeter in the passing game. He’s sound in protection. He not only knows where (pressure) is coming from, he has the ability to block it.”

The veterans, it seem, are helping. Defensive lineman Wallace Gilberry thought the offense has also welcomed fifth-round pick A.J. McCarron and he noticed quarterback Andy Dalton has been talking to him every day. Free-agent defensive tackle-turned-fullback Nikita Whitlock approached left tackle Andrew Whitworth about sitting in with the offensive line next week so he could better grasp his own blocking tracks.

And there were Wilson’s two protégés.

“We have a bunch guys who know what they’re doing and guys coming in with the same knowledge as you, so you get it from all angles,” Hill said.  “I was sixth on the depth chart when I got to LSU and I became the starter the same season. “I know what it takes day in and day out. It’s working hard and understanding your role. Your role could change any day, so you have to prepare yourself like you’re going to start.”

Sounds like a deposition from The Law Firm.

                    Bengals Top Ten Rushers

Corey Dillon 8,061 yards 6-1 225 second round, 1997

James Brooks 6,447 yards 5-10 180 trade, 1984

Rudi Johnson 5,742 yards 5-10 220 fourth round, 2001

Pete Johnson 5,421 yards  6-0, 252 second round, 1977

Cedric Benson 4,176 yards 5-11, 222 free agent, 2008

Harold Green 3,727 yards 6-2, 222 second round, 1990

Essex Johnson 3,070 yards 5-9 201 sixth round, 1968

Boobie Clark 2,978 yards 6-2 245 12th round, 1973

Archie Griffin 2,808 yards 5-9 189 first round, 1976

Charles Alexander 2,645 6-1 224 first round, 1979

 

 

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