Updated: 11 p.m. LSU running back Jeremy Hill admitted he trembled when head coach Marvin Lewis phoned him Friday night and told him the Bengals took him late in the second round.
Cincinnati hopes the balance of power in the AFC North turf wars shakes some, too, after they added the kind of big running back they used to be known for. So in an effort to give new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson's revived running game fresh legs, the Bengals found a complementary back for slippery Giovani Bernard when they took the LSU Masher in the most concrete evidence yet of Jackson's commitment to a physical, ball-control game that will be markedly different than years past.
The 6-0, 233-pound Hill averaged 6.9 yards per carry and racked up 1,401 yards running downhill on inside zones and multiple looks that fit the style of the AFC North.
The last time the Bengals drafted a 230-pound back in the second round? How about Elbert "Ickey,' Woods with the 31st pick in 1988?
But the big back found himself light enough to float, calling the phone call with Lewis "an-out-of-body experience."
Hill went with the 55th pick on a history-making night for running backs at the draft. The first one didn't get selected until Washington's Bishop Sankey went 54th to Tennessee. Until Friday, the latest a back went was last year when the Bengals took Bernard at No. 37.
With Bernard projected to be the starter in his second season, the Hill pick crowds the running back room, where they keep four. Current power back BenJarvus Green-Ellis, the starter the past two seasons heading into the last year of his deal, is highly regarded as a team leader and efficient short-yardage back. Cedric Peerman is viewed as a special teams staple while second-year man Rex Burkhead has played just one game but Jackson is encouraged by his progress.
When Jackson spoke with the 6-0, 233-pound Hill during the scouting process, he invoked the name of Steelers rookie running back Le'Veon Bell as a player the Bengals liked, but not more than Bernard. Now they have both styles.
"In the spring, one of the things we've been harping on is the physicality. The tempo," said new running backs coach Kyle Caskey. "And making sure we're ingraining that every day in these guys' minds. Not that we weren't doing that in the past, but that's our motto this year. Tempo. And this is the type of guy that fits our system."
With no backs taken until just before they picked, the Bengals were mulling waiting until the third round to take one. But they realized the size of back they coveted wouldn't be around and chose Hill over another big back and local favorite Carlos Hyde, the Ohio State Buckeye with Cincinnati roots.
To say the least it wasn't a popular move locally, but it was rooted in logic. Hill's track record against the SEC played big, as well as running out of multiple pro sets while Hyde worked out of the spread in Columbus.
"You see spread-out zone option teams and you get six feet holes to run through," Caskey said. "Jeremy Hill wasn't getting that all the time because of the offense he was running because of the type of offense they run. He was able to find creases and you saw that on film. With the other guys, it wasn't always evident whether they could do that kind of downhill running. But he showed it on film, and it was there and it was hard evidence."
Jackson simply offered, "At the end this was a better fit for what we're going to do. Don't get me wrong, Carlos Hyde is a heck of a football player. Somebody is going to get a very good football player here very shortly, but this was the best fit for the Bengals."
(Even before that, Hyde was gone, 57th to the 49ers.)
Just ask Hill, who spent the draft in his lifelong home of Baton Rouge, site of the LSU campus.
"I think I'm the most complete back in this draft because I can do it all," he said. "I'm a bigger back, but I can also score 50-yard touchdowns and make long runs and finish runs…. I can get the tough yardage. I'm a great pass catcher. The best way to describe my game is complete. I can do it all."
But the draft has been humbling for Hill, 21. Before last February's NFL scouting combine, he sent a letter to every team vouching for his own character and urging teams to call sources close to him and not go by internet reports.
According to published reports, Hill was arrested twice at LSU. Once was for a simple battery charge for punching a man in the head outside a bar. It violated his probation from a previous guilty plea to misdemeanor carnal knowledge of a juvenile in January of 2012, and he was suspended for five quarters this past season.
"It was just a letter letting the teams know what kind of man I am," Hill said. "I wanted to let them know I'm not trying to hide anything. It's open game. I'm not afraid of anything. I was a young man that made mistakes. I don't know too many young men that haven't made mistakes.
"Anyone who comes in contact with me on a daily basis — equipment managers, coaches, trainers — they know what kind of person I am. Once I get into the locker room, they'll see that and they'll see my leadership skills and how I work day in and day out. I think they'll be happy with it."
Jackson and head coach Marvin Lewis never saw the letter. They did their homework through their connections on the LSU staff. Jackson has worked with two of the assistants in the past, including his offensive coordinator in Baltimore, Cam Cameron.
"I didn't need the letter. I have a real connection with several coaches there," Jackson said. "I trust their opinion. They coached in the NFL and they know what you have to do to have a chance up here. That's all behind him and his future is bright."
Hill had no idea the Bengals were the team. But except for a scare when the plane landed in Kentucky, he had what he called a great visit to Paul Brown Stadium about three weeks ago.
"I didn't know Kentucky was that close. I thought I was on the wrong plane. I was freaking out," Hill said. "It's such a down to earth city, hardworking, blue collar people. I'll definitely fit right into that."
It's amazing how the careers of Louisiana natives Hill and Green-Ellis have intersected. Both were coached in college by the same position coach, Frank Watson, and now it looks like the kid is pushing BJGE for a roster spot with The Law Firm scheduled to make $3 million.
Asked if there were room for both backs on the roster, Jackson didn't say much.
"Right now there is. Right now that's not my concern," Jackson said. "My biggest thing is, again, whoever we put on this team, my job is to coach. So at the end of the day, we have some very competitive guys in our room, and I know nobody's going to shy away from anybody."
Hill said he's adopted Green-Ellis' attention to ball security, noting he fumbled onlu once at LSU and didn't lose it.
"I'm honored to be a part of that room with an experienced guy like Green-Ellis, and Gio, who had a great rookie year," Hill said. "I'll take everything I can and learn from them. The league is going with multiple backs, so everyone will need each other to finish a 16-game schedule, plus the playoffs. In a physical division, it would be tough for one guy to carry the load by himself. We'll all need each other and we'll compete and make each other better, and I'm very excited for it."