EAST LANSING - No one has needed to remind Nick Hill that he's fighting for playing time with three other talented running backs.
The former Chelsea standout knew that even before he took his first practice snap last season.
But it was easy to see and hear the growing confidence of the 5-foot-7, 180-pound redshirt freshman running back determined to find a role in Michigan State's offense - this season.
"The game has slowed down tremendously and I'm starting to get to the pace, if I'm not already at the pace where I can see the blocks clear as day - pre-snap read and post-snap read,'' Hill said. "I'm pretty good in space but I'm just trying to find something to get better at each and every day. I'm just trying to get a feel for what I can do. I know I can play. I know I can play in the Big Ten and I know I can play out there on Saturdays. So I'm just trying to find a way to get out there on the field.''
Last season, during his eventual redshirt season, Hill was just hoping to get a shot at some future playing time. The Nick Hill that talked to the media on Monday was one brimming with confidence. Confidence that he 'would' find a way to get playing time, not that he 'might' be getting some playing time.
"I believe so,'' Hill said when asked if he thought he was pushing the three incumbents. "I believe they know I'm right there with them. I believe that between us, the margin is not much different between all of us talent-wise. We all bring different elements to the table but there's not a huge gap and I think they feel that I'm bringing some plays to the table.''
And Hill's efforts, ones that have him also working as a kick returner, as well as a threat out of the backfield, seem to be showing MSU's coaching staff that they need to find a way to get him in the lineup.
"Nick Hill is exciting with the football. He has a lot of confidence, which is good to see,'' said linebackers and special teams coach Mike Tressel. "Nick's very good at catching the punts too. It's nice to have another guy back there who can catch it very smooth. You don't have to worry about if the ball's on the ground or anything like that. I would say you will see him with some returns.''
During the Spartans' recent scrimmages, Hill has gone for 72 yards on 14 carries and 85 yards on 25 attempts.
"My confidence in myself is getting a lot better," Hill said. "Knowing the offense, getting my reps down. Last year, I was getting a feel for the playbook and the speed of the game but now I'm just learning to go, I'm learning to fly and I'm just going out there and just trying to compete.''
Tressel has noticed a physical presence about the running back, who has earned some comparisons to former Michigan running back Mike Hart.
FINDING A NICHE
Hill might not be the kickoff return threat that Keshawn Martin and Bennie Fowler are at this point, but he has shown enough elusiveness to get teammates talking. Moreover, he has shown - perhaps surprisingly - the potential to block on kickoff returns as the second deep man when the primary deep man heads upfield with the return.
The blocking of the second deep man is a key and often-overlooked component of the return game. Can little Hill do it?
"I would have said no at the beginning of fall camp but then when I watch him stick his nose in there in pass protecting, I would say without a doubt he can," Tressel said. "(In Sunday's scrimmage) he had to pick up a 3-technique defensive tackle and he stuck his nose right in there against 300 pounds and held his ground, so he can certainly be an (the No. 2) kickoff returner. If Nick was out there, I would be thrilled. I would have no worries about that.''
His approach to his other responsibilities, like blocking, seem to indicate Hill's growing maturity about his situation in just a short time.
"It doesn't matter if he's 300 pounds, 200 pounds or 250, I've got to stick my nose in there and block him,'' Hill said. "I'm pretty sure (there are some guys) that will (take me lightly). They see a guy out there that's 5-7, 180, 182 pounds (and they're thinking) we're going to rush through him, blow over him. So I think some guys will underestimate me but I'll make them pay for it.''
As for that comparison to a former running back from the rival school.
"I've actually been getting that (comparison with Hart) since I was a sophomore in high school, and it stuck with me, so I'm kind of used to it,'' Hill said. "Being compared to Mike Hart is an honor. I was watching the Big Ten channel and he was voted the best running back of the last decade (in the Big Ten) but this is Michigan State and we're playing Michigan State football, not Michigan football.''
DEEP DEPTH CHART
Preseason first team All Big Ten candidate Jerel Worthy thinks this could be MSU's deepest rotation of defensive linemen MSU since he's been here.
Defensive line coach Ted Gill has always expressed his desire to establish a deeper playing pool on the d-line since his arrival with Mark Dantonio.
Now he just may have it with the possibility of as many as 12 players proving that they deserve playing time.
Worthy says he can definitely see a difference in practice as to the number of guys who will be able to make noticeable contributions on Saturday.
"Definitely. It's a lot more possible than what we had in the past,'' Worthy said. "We had a lot of young talent last year but everybody wasn't mentally ready to go. So we had to rely on guys like me, Colin Neely and Pickleman to carry the load for most of the season.
"But (Coach Gill has) built up a very strong defensive line. A lot of guys are getting a lot of reps and getting a lot better out there and I think we'll be good this season.''
DOUBLE, TRIPLE DUTY:
Former Spartan Greg Jones was never shy about his enjoyment of his role on special teams. It was a job he relished despite being one of the Big Ten's top linebackers.
Tressel said that philosophy of using starters and backups on special teams will continue this season.
"If you're one of the better players on the team, you should expect to start on two special teams and that that should be the expectation. If you consider yourself a great player, you start on two special teams,'' Tressel said. "Every one of our starting linebackers, and I would say every one of our backup linebackers, should be on at least two special teams. I'd say the same thing about our safeties. Our linebackers and safeties are going to be ruling the special teams.
"You've got some other guys who are willing to hit out there that you'll mix in but there's going to be a lot of starters on special teams. You've got to run down on special teams and get us some field position.''