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Hill, who went from local hero to college champion to unwanted by the NFL, is proving first impressions can be overcome. But it takes a lot of work and support.
“I remember him coming out of college, he sat in my office before the draft, and I remember seeing this kid thinking that the world is his and everyone else needed to bow down at his feet,” Merritt recalled today, 48 hours after Hill’s interception in Philadelphia sealed a victory for the Giants. “When he went through the process of not being drafted, not being invited even to a free agent camp, it humbled him into, really, an ant.”
It was quite a fall for Hill.
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A New Jersey native, he broke onto the scene as an All-American and two-time state Offensive Player of the Year out of St. Peter’s Prep. He went on to play at the University of Florida, helping the Gators to a BCS National Championship in the 2008 season.
Hill declared for the 2011 NFL Draft following his junior season, but no one called. Chalk it up to teams around the league seeing what Merritt saw. A year spent on the outside looking in didn’t solve all of Hill’s problems, but it did just enough for the Giants to sign him before the 2012 season.
“He really went down to the floor, and to be able to come back like when he came back on our workout that we had for him, he came out with a clean shave and a clean cut,” Merritt said. “I didn’t know who the kid was, to be honest with you, when I saw him that first day. So really for Will to be able to come back and do the things that he’s done thus far – there’s still a long way to go – my hat’s off to him.”
Hill debuted with a tackle in Week 1 of the 2012 season and went on to play in 12 games as rookie, recording 38 tackles and breaking up two passes. However, a violation of the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing substances caused him to miss four games in the middle of the season.
The 2013 campaign began on a dark note as well when it was announced in training camp that Hill was suspended for the first four games without pay for violating the NFL Policy and Program for Substances of Abuse. Hill admitted it was due to a failed drug test as he coped with the stresses of being a professional athlete and all that comes with it, especially in the area he grew up.
“The program that [Director of Player Development] Charles Way and Mr. [Jerry] Reese and Mr. [John] Mara has set up for the kid, he has stuck to that and done a tremendous job,” Merritt said about the front office. “So we all hope that he continues to succeed for his sake, as a young man trying to grow up in this area and then having to come back and play pro football in this area. It must be tough having a family and everyone pulling on you. So just for his well-being, we’re pulling for him.”
On a 10-point scale, Merritt said that Hill is at a “six” in his growth as an NFL safety, adding that he can be a Pro Bowler someday because of his aggressiveness and ability to cover slot receivers.
“When Will goes to tackle you – and he doesn’t miss many tackles. To be honest, I can’t really recall when the last time was I saw him miss a tackle – Will brings a tenacity about him that’s like no other,” Merritt said. “When he hits you, he actually has knockback tackles. He has leverage ability. He understands power angles, and hats off to the kid and his training and what he’s learned over the years. I’m just trying to make sure I don’t mess it up.”