Philadelphia — Baltimore Ravens rookie running back Justice Hill caught a short pass from Lamar Jackson, made a quick pivot and shot up the field so quickly that two Philadelphia Eagles defenders knocked into each other trying to get a hand on him.
In Monday’s joint practice with the Eagles, Hill was showing the same bursts, jump cuts and sudden change of direction that defined another No. 43 on the same field — Darren Sproles.
Asked about the comparison to Sproles, Hill smiled but didn’t really buy into it.
“I think it’s just the number,” said Hill, who was given the No. 43 when he joined the Ravens.
Just like Sproles, Hill has had to battle the perception that he’s undersized, at 5-foot-10, 200 pounds. And, like Sproles, he is often the most elusive player on the field in terms of juking and acceleration.
If the Ravens can get any Sproles-like production from Hill this season, it would add another dimension to Baltimore’s run-heavy offense. The Ravens can hit defenses with downhill runners such as Mark Ingram and Gus Edwards and use Hill as a changeup back.
In Thursday’s 26-13 win over the Green Bay Packers, Hill led the Ravens with 49 yards rushing on 10 carries and was the team’s highest-rated offensive player by Pro Football Focus. He forced nine missed tackles on 12 touches against the Packers, according to analysis on the website Establish The Run.
Hill’s best moment came when Hill was face to face with Packers outside linebacker Kyler Fackrell in the backfield. Jumping to his left, Hill embarrassed the lunging part-time starter and broke to the outside.
“He is an athletic kid who flies, hits the hole hard, and he can finish runs both inside and outside — just a lot of fun to watch,” said Joe Hortiz, Ravens director of player personnel. “He makes guys look bad in space.”
At Oklahoma State, Hill was known for his cutting ability off the field. He was the team’s unofficial barber.
Hill estimates he cut the hair of every teammate at least once.
“I had the same haircut for a long time,” Hill said. “I was tired of going to the barber and pay $25 just to get my sides cut. I got my own clippers and started learning.”
Like in many situations when Hill has a question, he turned to YouTube. He watched videos of how others snipped, trimmed and chopped hair.
“Really, you can learn anything on YouTube,” Hill said. “You can really go to college on YouTube. They might as well start a university.”
Hill’s first client was his younger brother when he was in high school. By the time he got to college, word had spread about his hobby. He became so comfortable and confident that he once did an entire interview on Fox Sports while cutting a teammate’s hair.
Since being drafted, Hill no longer cuts his own hair. With an NFL contract, he has the luxury to enjoy relaxing at the barber shop.
Would Hill cut the hair of one of his Ravens teammates if asked?
“I’m retired, man,” Hill said with a smile.
The hair-cutting career might be over, but Hill has big goals with the Ravens.
The other running back Hill stacks up against is Saquon Barkley, who finished second in the NFL in rushing last season as a rookie.
At this year’s NFL combine, Hill became the second running back since 2003 to record a 40-yard time of 4.40 or faster and a vertical of at least 40 inches. The only other one to do so over that span was Barkley.
Hill’s 40 time of 4.40 seconds was the fastest among running backs at the combine, which didn’t come as a surprise to him.
“I’ve always been the fastest guy on the field, in my opinion, since I first started playing around 5 years old,” Hill said.
Hill used that speed to become one of the most productive running backs in the country. It was an impressive start for Hill, who beat out Seahawks starter Chris Carson to be Oklahoma State’s featured back as a freshman. Hill’s 3,539 rushing yards over the past three seasons rank as the eighth-most in the FBS. His 13 games with over 100 yards rushing in 2017 and 2018 tied Iowa State’s David Montgomery for the most in the Big 12.
“What I always thought about him is his first 5 or 10 yards of burst through a hole or after making a move was elite,” Oklahoma State running back coach John Wozniak said. “If somebody tested in the 5-yard range, he’d be No. 1. I would put my money on him.”
Hill’s stock dropped last season when he gained a career-low 930 yards. He didn’t play the final three games because of a rib injury, and Oklahoma State spread the ball around more last season.
But Hill did produce his best average at 5.9 yards per carry in 2018.
“What he can control isn’t how many touches he gets,” Wozniak said. “It’s more yards per carry. It’s what he does with his touches. I don’t look at last year was a down year.”
The Ravens envision as a home run threat.
“He’s a guy that can take it,” Harbaugh said. “If he gets a crease, if he gets an opening with our downhill run game the way we do it, the first part of this system, all those runs that we run — those off-tackle, downhill, double-team runs — if he gets a crack, they’re going to be chasing him.”
The Ravens have been pleasantly surprised that Hill isn’t a one-dimensional runner. Even though he lacks prototypical size, Hill is fearless running in between the tackles.
On Hill’s first touchdown, Hill broke a leg tackle before lowering his left shoulder and powering his way into the end zone from 1 yard out. Perhaps Hill be more than specialized running back like Sproles.
“I don’t think he’s the guy that you just go, ‘Oh, the ‘toss guy’ is in the game. Watch for the toss,'” offensive coordinator Greg Roman said. “I think he has shown that he can run a variety of run schemes — inside, outside — and he’s displayed vision and quickness to definitely run the scheme. But also, you love it when, if something breaks down or changes, he can fix it on the fly. He just has to keep coming in every day, working hard, because he’s done a really nice job so far. We’re all really excited about Justice.”