ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) — Coach John Fox declared in the aftermath of Denver’s playoff loss to Baltimore that the Broncos needed to bulk up their backfield.
Turns out they didn’t have to draft Wisconsin running back Montee Ball to accomplish that feat.
Ronnie Hillman, who was lucky to tip the scales at 180 pounds by January, is pushing 200 pounds in his quest to get more playing time in 2013. That extra mass and muscle should help him better take on blitzers and linebackers in his second season in the NFL.
Hillman’s rookie season was marred by a pulled hamstring in camp and weight loss during the season, two factors that combined to keep him from honing his blitz pickup skills that are a prerequisite for playing alongside Peyton Manning.
So, Hillman hit the weights over the winter, working out this offseason at Athletic Gaines in Los Angeles, where Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch, Detroit’s Reggie Bush and Jacksonville’s Maurice Jones-Drew also train, and he posted pictures on his Instagram account showing his newly buffed body.
At 20, Hillman was the youngest player in the league last year, and he got off to a sputtering start because of his hamstring troubles. He finished with 330 yards and a touchdown to go with a 3.9-yard average.
When Knowshon Moreno joined Willis McGahee on the sideline with a knee injury in that playoff game against the Ravens, the Broncos turned to Hillman, who carried 22 times for 83 yards without a fumble but couldn’t get first downs in the fourth quarter to run out the clock, and the Broncos lost in double overtime.
Hillman went back to California, intent on getting bigger and stronger, and by the time he returned to Denver for offseason workouts, he was a head-turner with his noticeably thicker torso and thighs.
“Right now I’m probably about 15 pounds heavier than I was in the last game that I played,” said Hillman, who hopes to play at 195 all season.
Manning was certainly pleased to hear that.
“We’re really counting on him this year to have more of a role in the offense,” Manning said. “Last year they kind of had a rotation and he had a certain amount of snaps that he was going to get. I definitely see that role increasing and (offensive coordinator) Adam (Gase) giving him more responsibility in this offense. It’s not just kind of a limited package like we did last year.
“We are really expecting him to make that next-level jump. … We’re counting on him to do good things for us this year.”
The key will be not losing that added bulk as the season grinds on.
“He was light last year,” Gase said. “And that happens with a young guy, his first year in the league, his weight decreases. That pounding that you’re going to take running between the tackles — he needs to keep that size. And I think he will.”
Just as important as being able to take on linebackers is being able to handle the blitzers coming after Manning, and he’s making progress there, too, Gase said.
“The thing that he’s shown us the last three days is at least his aggressiveness and willingness to go attack the blitzer,” Gase said during OTA workouts this week. “That’s what we need to see. When we get in pads, that’s going to be a different deal as far as, OK, is he going to be able to sustain and do it consistently? I think he will. That size that he’s put on, that should help him.
“But his mentality, he’s an aggressive guy. For a guy that’s built like him, you see him bigger now, he was never afraid to run between the tackles to begin with. Running the ball inside there and being able to take on linebackers, it’s very close to being the same thing for him as far as a physical standpoint.”
Hillman said he doesn’t think his added bulk will sap any of his notorious speed, either.
“I’m practicing with it right now, so I’m getting used to it,” he said. “And by the time the season comes, I won’t even notice.”
Hillman also has a renewed appreciation for stretching because, he said, he never really recovered last year from that pulled hamstring last summer.
“But I’m healthy now,” he said. “So, now all I can do is look forward.”
With Ball buried in the playbook and McGahee absent from the “voluntary” OTAs, Hillman ran with the starters this week when the Broncos held their first full practices since last season.
“It’s a privilege running with the first team right now,” he said.
By adding Ball, a second-round pick, and free agents Wes Welker and Louis Vasquez, the Broncos beefed up their offense this offseason and are planning to pick up the pace in 2013, and that’s music to the ears of a burner like Hillman.
“It’s going to be something,” Hillman said. “I think it’s going to be a great thing, it lets us just get out there and play fast. A lot of people can’t keep up with our team. We’re a fast team.”
By ARNIE STAPLETON, AP Pro Football Writer
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