April 24, 2014

Elyria
Partly sunny
51°F
test

Browns: Hillis winning fans … and games .. with his style of play

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Peyton Hillis walked through the locker room Wednesday in camouflage pants.

These weren’t the green version you’d find at a military supply store. These were light-colored with brown patches. And insulation.

They were hunting pants.

“They’re warm,” Hillis said of his morning-meeting attire.

Hillis’ personality hasn’t changed in the midst of a breakout season that has inspired Pro Bowl discussion at the stacked running back position.

He still uses ma’am and sir when talking to reporters, returned home to the family ranch in Arkansas during the bye and hunts whenever he gets the chance.

Deer were the target of choice during the bye, but he’s not picky. It may sound foreign to a suburbanite, but he’s a big fan of hog hunting.

Perhaps that comes with the Razorback roots. He was born and raised in Conway, Ark., starred in football and baseball for the Conway Wampus Cats and attended the University of Arkansas.

But these aren’t your run-of-the-mill hogs. He’s killed untamed Russian boar in the swamplands of the South.

How do you go about hunting wild boar?

“Same as usual. You get a team of boys together, a bunch of dogs and lay ‘em up against a tree and shoot ‘em or cut ‘em,” Hillis said. “It’s pretty simple.”

The boar are nasty and use their tusks as weapons. They breed quickly and have become a huge problem in the South.

“I’ve been afraid a lot,” he said. “I’m just a scared person when I do it. But you know, you get in there and get it done. It’s more exciting and fun, an adrenaline rush kinda thing.”

Hillis has been on the wrong end of the hog a few times.

“But I ain’t going to talk about that,” he said.

Mr. Popularity

Hillis is a man’s man. He downplayed a strained thigh earlier in the season and wouldn’t give the offending boar the satisfaction. One of the many reasons Browns fans have fallen in love.

If it weren’t for the emergence of quarterback Colt McCoy, Hillis would be the runaway leader for favorite new Brown.

The No. 1 reason for the admiration is production. He’s rushed for 726 yards (12th in the NFL), has 982 yards from scrimmage (eighth), nine touchdowns (tied for second), eight rushing touchdowns (third), 54 points (tied for third) and 55 first downs (third).

He’s made general manager Tom Heckert look like a genius for trading quarterback Brady Quinn to Denver for Hillis, a sixth-round draft pick in 2011 and a conditional pick in 2012. If Hillis keeps this up, and Quinn stays stapled to the bench, it will go down as one of the Browns’ best deals of all time.

“When I talked to Peyton on the phone right after the trade, I said that there’s no reason that he couldn’t come here and have 1,000 yards and be a core part of the offense,” coach Eric Mangini said. “What I liked was the versatility (fullback, special teams), but I also believed that if you gave him the ball on a consistent basis he could really be very productive with it.”

The brute force – handy in getting the best of a 500-pound boar – is the most notable talent. He never shies from contact and, at 250 pounds, he gives more bruises than he receives. The fighter in him keeps the legs churning after contact, leading to a ton of hidden yardage.

He’s also surprisingly athletic, which is evident when he beats the defense to the corner on a quick pitch or when he hurdles an unsuspecting safety in the open field.

Then there are the hands.

He’s second on the Browns with 34 catches for 256 yards. Tim Horton, his running backs coach at Arkansas, never doubted Hillis’ catching ability, especially after a Cotton Bowl practice during his senior season.

Hillis ran a wheel route down the sideline, and two of the quarterbacks threw to him.

“In perfect stride, he reaches up with his right hand for one, then with the left hand for the other. He never breaks stride,” Horton said last week by phone. “The team was oohing and aahing. I’ve never seen that before and I’ve never seen it since.”

A good fit

Horton might’ve had the best job in the country. First-round picks Darren McFadden and Felix Jones and Hillis
(a seventh-rounder in 2008) shared a class and a backfield. Horton knew Hillis got frustrated by the lack of carries, but said he kept a good attitude.

“We just didn’t have enough footballs to give everybody the touches they deserved,” he said. “I knew Peyton was very good. He had really good vision and he can pound it.

“I have a lot of respect for the way he handled it. He had a team-first mentality. It’s really not that big of a surprise he’s doing what he’s doing.”

Hillis showed enough when he wasn’t a lead blocker for the Broncos to spend a draft pick. In his last regular-season game, at No. 1 LSU, he scored four touchdowns and totaled 151 yards from scrimmage. He spent the next day in a deerstand in southern Arkansas.

The wide-open spaces of Colorado seemed the perfect spot for Hillis, but injuries and a coaching change undercut him. The trade gave him new life and a new home.

“He loves it there,” Horton said. “He likes the people, the organization and how he’s been treated. He’s really enjoying it.

“I’m so thankful the Browns got him. He’s fit in so, so well.”

Hillis hasn’t missed an opportunity to reciprocate the love of Northeast Ohio.

“I feel like I can relate to the fans on a personal level,” he said. “They’re hardworking people, they love football and they don’t ask for much and they just want to see their team play.”

When Hillis’ work is done today, he’ll most likely pull on a pair of boots and settle under a cowboy hat. On the plane ride home, he might share a boar tale with left tackle Joe Thomas, who tried the adventure with linebacker Matt Roth last year during his Pro Bowl trip to Florida.

“It was very intense,” Thomas said. “Tribal almost.”

Mangini loves having Hillis, but he can’t relate to knifing a 500-pound boar.

“I like to chase steaks on a plate,” he said. “I’ve caught a lot in my day, I’ve gotten some good ones.”

Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7253 or spetrak@chroniclet.com.

JUST THE FACTS

• WHO: Cleveland at Jacksonville
• WHEN: Today, 1 p.m.
• WHERE: EverBank Field, Jacksonville, Fla.
•  TV/RADIO: Channel 19; WMMS 100.7-FM, WTAM 1100-AM
• RECORDS: Browns 3-6; Jaguars 5-4
• LAST WEEK: Browns lost 26-20 in overtime vs. New York Jets; Jaguars won 31-24 vs. Houston
• SERIES: Jaguars lead 8-4
• SERIES AT JACKSONVILLE: Tied at 3
• LAST MEETING: Browns won 23-17 on Jan. 3 in Cleveland
• COACHES: Eric Mangini is 8-17 with Browns, 31-43 overall; Jack Del Rio is 63-61 with Jaguars and overall
• TV/RADIO: Channel 19, with broadcasters Bill Macatee and Rich Gannon; WMMS 100.7-FM, WTAM 1100-AM
• NFL RANKINGS (OUT OF 32 TEAMS): Browns – offense 26th (12th rushing, 29th passing), defense 24th (19th rushing, T-23rd passing); Jaguars – offense 19th (6th rushing, 26th passing), defense 28th (21st rushing, 29th passing)
• BROWNS UPDATE: Facing the Jaguars for the third straight season. Browns have won the last two meetings 23-17.
• Browns will face all three Florida franchises on the road in the same year for the first time. It’s the first time since 1987 they will play three teams from the same state on the road.
•  Nine of the Browns’ 10 opponents have a winning record and six are leading their division. Browns have faced seven teams with at least six wins.
•  Cleveland has the best kick coverage unit, allowing an NFL-low 17.1 yards on kickoffs and 5.0 on punts.
•  K Phil Dawson made two field goals last week to give him 13 straight makes, the second-longest active streak in the NFL.
• The defense ranks 10th in points allowed with 20.2 per game.
• QB coach Carl Smith was offensive coordinator with the Jaguars in 2005-06.
• Rookie CB Joe Haden played at the University of Florida. He got his second interception last week.
• NT Ahtyba Rubin had a career-high nine tackles against the Jets. He’s third on the team with 46.
• Chansi Stuckey leads the team’s wideouts with 27 catches.

JAGUARS UPDATE: Jacksonville was in the old AFC Central from 1995-2001, including the last three years with the Browns.
• Rookie WR Mike Thomas leads the team with 41 receptions for 536 yards, and has two TDs, including the winning Hail Mary last week. He’s 10th in the league with a 10.7-yard punt return average.
• Jaguars have seven three-and-out possessions, the fewest in the league.
• Rookie DT Tyson Alualu has 2½ sacks, four tackles for loss and 10 quarterback pressures.
• LB Daryl Smith leads the team with 84 tackles.
• Jaguars haven’t allowed a punt return for more than 13 yards since 2008. They rank third in opponent field position (26.9-yard line).
• RB coach Earnest Byner played for the Browns for seven seasons.
• Defensive coordinator Mel Tucker is a Cleveland native and coached with the Browns from 2005-08. He was defensive backs coach for three years and defensive coordinator for one.
• DL C.J. Mosley played for the Browns last year.
• BROWNS INJURY REPORT: Out: LB Scott Fujita (knee), WR Joshua Cribbs (foot), DB Mike Adams (abdomen); Questionable: DB Sheldon Brown (shoulder), DE Kenyon Coleman (knee), QB Jake Delhomme (ankle), DL Shaun Rogers (ankle), LB Matt Roth (illness), OL Eric Steinbach (calf), OL Floyd Womack (knee); Probable: LB Eric Barton (thigh), LB Marcus Benard (illness)
• JAGUARS INJURY REPORT: Doubtful: WR Mike Sims-Walker (ankle); Probable: DT Tyson Alualu (knee), LB Justin Durant (shin), DE Jeremy Mincey (hand)
• THE PICK: Browns need this win to keep the momentum going, and they get it. Browns 27-20.