Gophers linebacker Hill goes from walk-on to senior leader

  • Article by: JOE CHRISTENSEN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 19, 2013 - 10:54 PM

The linebacker had a strong finish to the 2012 season.

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One of Aaron Hill’s highlights from last year was a 33-yard interception return for a touchdown against Michigan State, but he’s not finished. “I think there’s still more to come,” the senior linebacker said.

Photo: MARLIN LEVISON • melvison@startribune.com,

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Aaron Hill arrived with the Gophers football team in 2009 as a walk-on. He will take the field this season, his final one with the team, as one of their main defensive leaders.

Now a senior, Hill is the lone returning starter at linebacker, and the Gophers are counting on him to keep making big plays. Last year, he had 74 tackles, tying him for third most on the team, along with two interceptions and three forced fumbles.

“I think Aaron’s an underrated football player,” Gophers coach Jerry Kill said. “We don’t talk about him [often], but he’s the leader of our defense, and a strong leader of our team.”

Hill was a football, basketball and track standout at St. Charles Lutheran High School in suburban St. Louis, but it took him awhile to grow into his current 6-2, 231-pound frame. He redshirted in 2009 before working his way into the linebacker rotation the next two seasons.

Back then, Hill was best known for his academic prowess. In 2011, the applied kinesiology major earned the team’s Butch Nash Award, given to the player who is most competitive on the field and in the classroom. Hill won that award again last year, but that time it came after a breakout season on the field.

“He’s a tremendous student, a tremendous character and a great athlete,” Kill said. “Where I’ve been before in turning programs around, he’s the type of leader you want. I’m a huge Aaron Hill fan — huge.”

Hill had nine or more tackles in a game four times last year. Two plays stood out on his highlight reel. In the regular-season finale against Michigan State, he dropped into coverage from his outside linebacker spot, intercepted Aaron Maxwell’s pass and ran 33 yards for a touchdown.

In the Meineke Car Care Bowl, with the Gophers tied against Texas Tech 24-24 late in the third quarter, the Red Raiders had second-and-goal from the 1-yard line. Running back Jakeem Grant took the ball and sprinted toward the pylon, but Hill came flying over and stripped the ball inches from the goal line. Texas Tech recovered but didn’t score when that drive ended with a blocked field-goal attempt.

“Any time you make a big play on defense, get the ball back for the offense or put some points on the board, it’s always a great feeling,” Hill said. “So I definitely think those were some of my greatest moments here at Minnesota, and I think there’s still more to come.”

After the bowl game, the Gophers linebacker corps was hit hard by graduation. Besides starters Mike Rallis and Keanon Cooper, they also lost reserves Spencer Reeves and Ryan Grant. Hill emerged as the group’s leader during winter workouts, and it has carried over into preseason camp.

“I had great mentors coming in when I was a freshman with Simoni Lawrence, Lee Campbell, Nate Triplett, and the next couple years with Mike Rallis, Keanon Cooper, Gary Tinsley,” Hill said. “So now I can take on that same role that they had when they were upperclassmen.”

The rest of the linebackers will have to grow fast. The middle linebacker spot will feature some combination of junior college transfer Damien Wilson and redshirt freshman Jack Lynn. Converted safety James Manuel has worked with the first-team defense at the other outside linebacker spot, but another junior college transfer, De’Vondre Campbell, is coming on strong.

The first true test, of course, comes Aug. 29 against UNLV. If the other linebackers can make the most of their abilities, as Hill has, the head coach will be quite pleased.

“I think it’s a solid group,” Hill said. “The guys that came in did a good job of trying to learn the concepts, and we had great summer workouts. It’s brought us closer as a group and made our chemistry that much better.”

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