There was never any questioning the pure athletic ability of Jonathan Hilliman.
From the minute he became a member of the St. Peter’s Prep varsity football team, Hilliman showed the natural athleticism that most running backs have.
“It was like watching a wild horse,” veteran Prep head coach Rich Hansen said. “We just had to saddle him up and break him in a little.”
Hilliman agreed with Hansen’s assessment.
“I can attest to being wild,” Hilliman said.
Hilliman also didn’t have a full understanding of what it took to be a successful high school running back, one with unlimited potential.
“His physical ability separated himself from other good backs,” Hansen said. “But I told him it was up to him to develop the same kind of mechanisms that other great backs have. It was more than just being physically gifted. I don’t think he realized how important the other components were. He had to watch what he did and said. That’s all part of his development.”
Hansen’s words hit home with Hilliman.
“I definitely understood what he was saying,” Hilliman said. “He told me my running was great, but he told me a lot of things that I did that I needed to improve. I was up to that challenge.”
Hilliman said that he really didn’t capture the idea that he was a big time college recruit and should play like one.
“I really didn’t pay attention to it,” Hilliman said. “I just went out and played. Some points, I understood, but I just wanted to play football. I didn’t want to deal with everything else.”
Hansen explained that there was a huge responsibility that came with being a nationally ranked recruit.
“They have to look at things differently,” Hansen said. “It’s not simply getting better on the high school level. The foundation is set on this level. But they have to realize there’s a bigger responsibility. There’s a lot of national media in their faces. It’s definitely high profile. It’s a lot to ask a 16-or-17-year-old kid to handle, all that attention and adoration. There’s a lot to manage and deal with.”
“He taught me that I had to wake up real fast,” Hilliman said. “That I had to pay more attention to my role on the team. I saw how he looked at me and how he commanded respect. I had to go the extra step and get better.”
Hilliman had a great junior year for the Marauders, rushing for more than 1,100 yards and scoring 17 touchdowns. But after Hilliman gave a verbal commitment to Rutgers during training camp, he knew that he had to give it his all now as a senior.
“I’m older and more mature,” Hilliman said. “I know that this is the last time I’ll have a chance to win a state championship. I’m going to attack it with everything I have.”
Hilliman has been nothing short of brilliant for the undefeated No. 3 state-ranked Marauders. He is just shot of 1,000 yards _ 995 to be exact _ in six games and has scored 15 touchdowns. He’s on pace to become the school’s all-time single season rushing leader, going after the record of 1,880 yards set by current Rutgers back Savon Huggins three years ago.
Last Friday, Hilliman continued his great season by collecting 191 yards on 18 carries and scoring four touchdowns in the Marauders’ 48-12 rout of Union City.
For his efforts, Hilliman has been selected as The Hudson Reporter Athlete of the Week for the past week. Hilliman is the second straight Marauder to earn the honor, joining teammate Brandon Wimbush, who earned the distinction last week.
Hansen is pleased with the way Hilliman has developed into one of the all-time great Prep running backs _ and there has been a litany, a legacy of great ball carriers to come out of Grand and Warren.
“Something clicked somewhere in him,” Hansen said. “I’m happy to see what he’s done overall. The most important part of his development is that he’s matured as a person. He’s taken on a leadership role. He’s getting the opportunity this year he didn’t have in the past and he’s been able to take advantage of it.”
Hansen said that Hilliman is a much better player this year.
“He’s found a different gear,” Hansen said. “He’s better at the point of attack. He’s hitting the hole faster. He just has a different confidence level at the point of attack, hitting it with more confidence. He’s also benefitting that we have a lot of weapons around him.”
Hilliman believes that his participation in track and field has helped him as a running back.
“I’m able to outrun defenders now and I think track has helped that,” Hilliman said. “I think track goes hand-in-hand with what I do in football.”
Hilliman said that he was always a multi-sport athlete growing up.
“I played basketball and wrestled a little,” Hilliman said. “I always ran track. But I’m a football player.”
Hilliman said that he learned a lot watching former teammate Huggins perform as a senior.
“It’s pretty much what I thought about,” Hilliman said. “I saw how Savon ran and how he handled himself. I remember the tips he gave me along the way. That has helped me along the way. I still talk to him and he understands what I’m going through.”
And next year, the two will be teammates again in Piscataway.
Hilliman said that he doesn’t want to think too much about Huggins’ record.
“What I’ve learned is when I don’t think about my stats, I play better,” Hilliman said. “So I’m not thinking about that. If it happens, it happens, but I want to win the state championship more than anything.”
As for the attention he’s received?
“It’s very humbling and honoring,” Hilliman said. “My Dad [Dorrell] saw that I had the potential four years ago to get a scholarship, so he sent me to St. Peter’s. It was a no-brainer that it was the right move. It was the best for my development.”
Hilliman likes the idea that he’s become associated with some of the great backs in the school’s history.
“The other greats tell me themselves about what I’ve done compared to them,” Hilliman said. “It means a lot to me. I wanted to come here and leave a legacy.”
Hansen said that he’s enjoyed watching Hilliman go from being the wild horse to the fine tuned athlete he is today.
“It’s been fun to watch him develop,” Hansen said. “To see that kind of metamorphosis take place has been great. I like watching him run. He’s a more complete player than he was two or three years ago.”
Hansen hopes that the complete Hilliman can lead the Marauders past the state’s No. 1-ranked team, St. Joseph of Montvale, this weekend. – Jim Hague
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com.