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Old Rice Teammates Casey And Hill Meet Again On Bengals Coaching Staff

Zac Taylor completed his 2021 coaching staff on Friday.
Zac Taylor completed his 2021 coaching staff on Friday.

Bengals head coach Zac Taylor finalized the biggest staff change of his three seasons Friday when he announced the promotions of Troy Walters and Brad Kragthorpe and the hiring of Tulsa running backs coach Justin Hill.

Taylor used a wide net to fil the vacancies. Last month he hired NFL veterans Frank Pollack and Marion Hobby to coach the offensive and defensive lines, respectively, while Hill, 32, gets his first NFL job coaching the Bengals running backs.

Taylor also stayed in-house when he promoted Walters from assistant wide receivers coach to wide receivers coach after eight seasons of playing the position in the NFL followed up a decade of college coaching. Kragthorpe, in his third year on staff, made the move to assistant wide receivers coach after two seasons as an offensive assistant.

Hill may be new to the NFL, but he's no stranger to the Bengals staff. He got a strong recommendation from college teammate, James Casey, the Bengals tight ends coach who has been so impressive during his first two seasons coaching in the league.

"I'm fired up. It's a great hire for us," said Casey, who played two seasons at Rice with Hill in 2007 and 2008. "We stayed in touch and we would see each other at coaches' conventions. He's all the stuff you want. Good guy, smart and he works his tail off."

Which is what Hill was doing Friday at Paul Brown Stadium. In between finishing up his paperwork and getting ready for his flight back to Tulsa, he popped in and out of Casey's office going over the grease board while planning to be back in town Monday.

"I know it's going to be a big learning curve for me coming from college to the NFL," Hill said. "Throughout my career, I've been able to adjust and be multiple. Not get stuck in one way doing things, but to be able to be adaptable."

Casey saw that adaptability first hand when Hill arrived as one of Rice's top recruits out of Denton, Texas. After leading the team in rushing as a true freshman, injuries forced Hill to linebacker and that's where he played the final three seasons and was actually named the school's top linebacker in his last season.

"That's not an easy switch to make in Division I," Casey said.

Hill got into coaching right away. After serving as a graduate assistant at Iowa State, he worked for three seasons in the Baylor weight room. He again showed his ability to adjust when he went to Tulsa in 2014 as the running backs coach and steered four different players to 1,000-yard seasons.

"I always wanted to coach football, but I wanted to get into coaching and got an opportunity as a strength coach," said Hill, who has participated in the American Football Coaches Association 30 Under 30 Leadership Institute. "I put in the work to get on the field and that's the work ethic I'm going to bring."

It just so happens that Casey is one of the people Hill watched do it the right way. A former minor-league prospect, Casey was a 23-year-old freshman for the Owls and two years away from being a fifth-round pick.

"The tape speaks for itself. He was the best player on the team at whatever position you put him in," Hill said. "He's one of the hardest working guys I've ever seen in my life. First one in, last to leave. He was older than us and everyone wanted to be like him."

They are linked in Rice history through an ESPN Wednesday night game in that first season of 2007. Casey became a kind of national phenomenon when injuries forced him to play seven different positions against Southern Mississippi that included quarterback, defensive end and holder as well as his own spot at tight end while Hill had his best game as a running back with 100 yards on a dozen carries that included a 54-yard touchdown.

Casey, who played seven seasons in the NFL, believes Hill is a good fit for a running backs room that has a two-time 1,000-yard rusher in Joe Mixon and one of the team's senior leaders in captain Giovani Bernard.

"From a player's perspective, I wasn't looking for a (position coach) to teach me football. Especially when I was a veteran," Casey said. "I wanted my coach to help me get better. Does he believe in me? Can he give me a few pointers going into the game about the defense or technique that help me be successful? Justin's been coaching running backs a long time and he's going to be in a great room with a great athlete and player in Joe Mixon and a guy that's been doing it for a long time in Giovani Bernard."

The last time the Bengals went with a young running backs coach out of the college ranks, 36-year-old Jim Anderson ended up coaching seven backs to 19 1,000-yard seasons as the longest serving Bengals coach in history with 29 years.