ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) A certain Denver Broncos quarterback has taken quite a liking to rookie running back Ronnie Hillman.
So much so that Peyton Manning frequently hauls Hillman over to an adjacent field in the middle of practice, just to work on their timing.
Hillman is eager to get up to speed with Manning even if the tailback can’t quite go full throttle right now.
The speedy third-round pick has been hobbled for a good portion of camp by a bothersome right hamstring. And what he’s quickly discovering is that no matter how fast he is on the field, he can’t rush back from this injury – no matter how badly he wants to.
“It’s not 100 percent,” said Hillman, whose team will host San Francisco in a preseason game Sunday. “But it’s not bad. You just have to fight through some things.”
Namely, not having his customary burst of speed.
Usually, when Hillman sees a sliver of daylight around the end of the line in practice, he’s through it with ease and leaving defenders grasping at air.
So far in camp, though, he’s rarely been able to cut loose and show the moves that led to a 1,711-yard season last year at San Diego State.
The Broncos have big plans for Hillman, too. He could very well be their version of Darren Sproles in New Orleans, an electric back who makes things happen when he gets the ball in open space.
“I can’t hit the sixth gear like I really want to,” Hillman said. “But I’m feeling healthier out there than a couple of days ago.”
He’s yet to play in a preseason game, but could see time against the 49ers (No. 4 in the AP Pro 32). At least that’s the plan – hamstring willing, of course.
“I think it’s more me cautiously easing into it,” he said. “I probably can hit sixth gear. I’ll probably hit it, if I play Sunday, I’ll most likely get to sixth gear. I’m testing it and seeing how it’s doing.”
For most of his career, Hillman has been relatively healthy. Sure, he had the occasional sprained ankle while with the Aztecs, but nothing that caused him to miss all that much time.
So this has been quite an eye-opener for him. Hillman thought he could take a few days off and be right back at work. That hasn’t been the case. He’s learning quite a bit about hamstrings, like just how long the injury takes to heal.
And how much rehab it takes. He shows up to the training complex each morning at 6:30 a.m. for treatment. Then, after practice, he goes through another round.
“They take treatment seriously here,” Hillman said, laughing.
Now, so does Hillman. He’s stretching more and drinking tons of water, hoping that will help fix his hamstring.
Just another part of the learning process in his rookie season.
As for the playbook, Hillman believes he has a solid grasp. Maybe once the intricate offense read like a foreign language, but now he’s quickly picking up the schemes.
Especially with Manning and fellow tailback Willis McGahee taking him under their wings.
Manning gives him little pointers on route running, which he eagerly takes to heart.
“Whenever you have a guy like that teaching you the proper way to run routes and what he expects from you, it helps your game,” Hillman said. “He knows exactly what they’re looking for.”
The same goes for his backfield mentor, McGahee.
“He tells me what I’m doing wrong, and what I should be looking out for,” said Hillman, who was once coached by rapper Snoop Dogg when he played on a youth team in Los Angeles. “You just hope it (the hamstring) gets better soon enough.”
Although he’s regarded as more of a bounce-it-to-the-outside type of tailback, the 5-foot-10, 190-pound Hillman isn’t afraid to run between the tackles. He scoffs at the notion he’s too little to take that kind of pounding.
“I had inside runs at San Diego State,” he said. “People say what they think because I’m a smaller back. I can carry it inside.”
A badge of honor to carry the ball in the trenches?
“It’s a badge of honor to touch the ball,” he said. “Right now, I’m just trying to make the team.”
The Broncos have quite a few running backs trying to make the squad. McGahee is the incumbent and listed as No. 1 on the depth chart. Lance Ball is right behind him, followed by Hillman. Knowshon Moreno, a first-round pick in 2009, Jeremiah Johnson and Xavier Omon are also in the mix for a spot.
“We’ve got a lot of talent there,” offensive coordinator Mike McCoy said. “That’s a good problem to have. … We’re going to have a tough decision to make.”
Notes: DT Kevin Vickerson (concussion) was cleared to practice Friday and spent some time with the first unit. He may play Sunday against the 49ers … Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio’s plans for Friday night were simple: Watch his son, Luke, play his first high school game for Valor Christian. “I’m probably more anxious and nervous about that game than I’ve ever been for myself, playing or coaching,” said Del Rio, whose son is a quarterback. “I’ll do my best to keep my poise in the stands and root him on.”
By PAT GRAHAM, AP Sports Writer
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