One of the biggest post-practice media scrums Thursday formed around a wide receiver with a history of dropped passes who spent last season on the Carolina Panthers’ practice squad.
Stephen Hill’s size and speed have always enticed both fans and coaches. So when Hill pulled in three deep balls during Thursday’s OTA session, beating starting cornerback Josh Norman on one of them, he drew a crowd afterward.
Hill was unfazed.
“I’m just out here being the same guy,” he said. “I was in New York and every day was like this type of attention, so it’s nothing new to me.”
It was only three years ago the New York Jets traded up to take Hill with the 43rd pick in the 2012 draft.
But after Hill caught only 45 passes in his first two years and ended both seasons on injured reserve, the Jets waived Hill last August. When none of the other 31 teams claimed him, the Panthers signed him to their practice squad.
That’s where Hill remained for all of 2014, although he would have been active for the playoff game at Seattle had Corey Brown not recovered from a shoulder injury.
Hill, an Atlanta native who played at Georgia Tech, said it was the first time in his career he’d been a scout player.
“Everything was new to me,” he said. “But it was a big opportunity to go against the (first-team defense) when I was a scout guy, and just still have that feeling of going against somebody really, really good.”
Hill, 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds, was matched against the Panthers’ best corner Thursday when he beat Norman on a pass from backup quarterback Derek Anderson. Hill said Norman tried to slow him down early in the route, but he was able to shake free.
Quarterback Cam Newton ran down the field to congratulate Hill, who later caught two passes from Newton against reserve corners Teddy Williams and Lou Young.
But Hill was focused on an earlier drop he had during individual drills, and said he still has a ways to go in his development.
“Today was pretty good. I made a couple big plays, still need to work on some things when it came to individuals,” he said. “But other than that, a pretty good day.”
Panthers coach Ron Rivera agreed with Hill’s assessment, but said he has to keep it going.
“We know he’s got the great speed and size and the willingness to do it,” Rivera said. “Now he’s got to go out and execute, and today was a really good day for him.”
Rivera said the team’s offseason additions – signing Ted Ginn Jr. and Jarrett Boykin and drafting second-rounder Devin Funchess – have increased the competition at wideout.
Hill downplayed that idea, but said the receiving group is faster this season.
“Definitely a lot of speed, adding Ted Ginn that’s one,” Hill said. “Everybody else has speed, but everyone plays it in their own way.”
Hill hopes his way – utilizing his size, speed and athleticism – allows him another chance to contribute on a 53-man roster after the disappointing end to his Jets stint.
“It was a stressful time at first when it happened,” he said. “But other than that I took it as a positive note, just learning how to be a complete receiver was my biggest focus.
“I took a step back to hopefully take 10 steps forward, so it should be good.”
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