In his rookie season with the Denver Broncos, Conway's Peyton Hillis had a wild ride.
The good stuff: In 12 games, the fullback rushed for 368 yards and five touchdowns, scoring four touchdowns in five games. He led the Broncos with six touchdowns (five rushing, one receiving). He became only the third player in Broncos history to have a 100-yard game rushing and a 100-yard game receiving in the same year.
Just as he was getting into a groove (making an NFL Midseason All-Rookie team), he tore his hamstring away from the bone.
"There was a lot of scar tissue and it was hard to get a full range of motion," said Hillis, who is in Denver for a passing camp but will return to Conway in late June and will conduct two day camps in July. "I was scared for awhile. It took some work. But fortunately, it's 100 percent now."
While he was recuperating from the injury, the Broncos changed coaching regimes, replacing Mike Shanahan, who had drafted Hillis out of the University of Arkansas specifically to be an H back in his offense, for Josh McDaniels, who is installing the New England Patriots' system.
More transition for Hillis.
"The system is a lot different, but I think my role will be what it has always been as an H back, fullback and receiver," Hillis said. "This system puts a lot of emphasis on reading personnel and defensive schemes and there are a lot of things to look at 10 seconds before the hut. It's pretty complicated. But I think it will work out well with the scheme and the system. I think I'm picking up things pretty quickly. I think we're going to have a pretty good team. We have talent. New England has had a lot of success with this scheme. If it worked there, it can work here."
"I think one of my strengths is to be able to do a lot of different things. Right now, they are experimenting with a lot of different looks and a lot of places on the field. I think they want to see what fits and the different places I can fit in."
Arkansas running back Peyton Hillis, top, leaps over Chattanooga defensive back Brandon Golder, bottom right, to score during the first quarter of the football game in Little Rock, Ark., as Chattanooga defensive back Chris Camacho (16) participates Saturday, Oct. 6, 2007. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston)
He's been working hard on quickness with his feet.
"The coaches see that I took a lot of blows and they want me to learn to avoid a lot of those hits," Hillis said. "You learn in the NFL that every hit is like being in a car crash at 30 miles an hour. You don't think about it like that. I've always liked to hit and look for contact. When you put on the pads, you don't think about the consequences of a big hit."
He said last season's injury-plagued campaign was beneficial. "The biggest pleasure is I found out I can play at this level," he said. "The last part of the season, I think I was really getting ahold of things. I was getting comfortable in the system and all I had to do was play ball and that's what I'm good at. It takes awhile to get the feel of things on this level."
And in his second year, he thinks his role has changed.
"I think people are looking at me for more leadership on the team," he said. "Being a leader on this level means a lot of responsibility and discipline. It's going out and setting an example. It's putting team first."
During the initial round of training camps and passing camps, he has gotten to know Marquez Branson, the tight end from UCA, who signed a free-agent contract with the Broncos.
"Nathan Brown (former UCA quarterback and former rival at Russellville High) had told me about him," Hillis said. "I can see he has athletic ability. There are several tight ends in camp right now, so it's hard to tell. A lot of it is being at the right places at the right time. One thing on this level is there is a stigma that players from 1-AA (NCAA Football Championship Subdivision) don't cut it on this level and don't have the same ability as players from major colleges. It's stupid, but players from that level have to overcome that."
After the passing camp and a mini camp, Hillis will return to Conway on June 26 for several activities in his hometown. He'll have a photo day on June 27 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Randy's Athletics and will make a donation to Conway Optimist Football in honoring his former youth team, the Curtis Cowboys and their longtime coach Theodore Jones.
He'll conduct football camps for youngsters 7-17 on July 11 at Conway Christian School and July 18 at Conway High School before heading for training camp.
"I've known several guys here who go back to their hometown in the summer to try to give something back to what that community gave them," Hillis said. "Conway was where it all started for me and with the help of my brother (Kyle) we've pulled things together.
"This takes me back to my roots. I've played in college and the pros but high school football was the most fun. I'm going to try to remind the kids that it's the best time of their lives and they really need to enjoy it."