PULLMAN – When it comes to challenges, San Diego State’s football team will present more to visiting Washington State on Saturday than any of the Cougars’ previous two opponents.
There’s coach Rocky Long’s aggressive defense, led by linebacker Miles Burris. Quarterback Ryan Lindley’s arm. Receiver Colin Lockett’s speed. A crowd of around 35,000 in Qualcomm Stadium, drawn by the matchup and a postgame fireworks show.
And then there’s Ronnie Hillman.
“He’s an elusive player who makes a lot of people miss,” WSU coach Paul Wulff said this week of the Aztecs’ sophomore running back.
He did last season.
Hillman led the nation’s freshmen in rushing, gaining 1,532 yards on 262 carries, a 5.8 yards-per-carry average. And the 5-foot-10, 190-pounder is doing even better this year, averaging 6.8 per carry after gaining 306 yards in SDSU’s two opening wins.
“He has the great ability to make you miss,” Wulff said. “He’s very sudden in his movements, very explosive. He seems to glide with his feet but, when he sees a hole, he can really burst through it.
“He’s very, very productive. Everyone they face, he gets yards. He’s going to get his yards against us, we know that. But we’ve got to keep him from having a major impact for their offense.”
Not only does Hillman chew up the turf, he also values the football. His last fumble came more than 100 touches ago, and he grabbed that one back.
No wonder Wulff answers quickly when asked who Hillman reminds him of.
“He’s got some similarities to Jacquizz Rodgers,” Wulff said, mentioning the Oregon State running back that turned pro after three first-team All-Pac-10 seasons and fumbled only once in his college career. “He doesn’t play quite as low or have quite the power that Jacquizz had, but he’s got that shiftiness and elusiveness.”
For Long, Hillman is everything you want in a college running back.
“Ronnie’s like all really good running backs,” the first-year San Diego State coach said. “He’s got great vision. He’s got quickness and speed, so he can get into a hole and out of a hole quickly. He can stop and start.
“He’s got special talent and this year, he’s bigger and stronger so he’s breaking a few more tackles.”
Washington State freshman quarterback Cody Clements knows Hillman well, having played with him at La Habra High in Southern California. As a sophomore nursing a knee injury, Clements had the opportunity to watch Hillman lead the Highlanders to a CIF title, winning Freeway League MVP honors on the way.
“He was an amazing athlete,” Clements said. “More of a speedster on the corners but he’s definitely made the transition to college, so he can run it up the middle as well. That’s the biggest change I’ve seen in his game.
“He was not cocky at all. He did all his talking on the football field. He was one of the best high school football players in Orange County.”
Hillman, who sat out a season before enrolling at SDSU, and Clements stay in touch.
“I just texted him, talked with him on Facebook, to see how he’s doing,” Clements said earlier this week. “I told him last week ‘you’ve got to get all your yards and your touchdowns out of the way against Army.’ “
And Hillman’s response?
“He said, ‘ha-ha. All right,’ “ Clements said.