“You’re built for this”: Freshman shines in wake of Delaware injuries

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ASSISTANT SPORTS EDITOR

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Nijuel Hill

Nijuel Hill made his first career start before the largest crowd in Delaware football’s 128-year history.

Over 62,000 representatives of “Hokie Nation” rocked Lane Stadium as Hill, a 5’10’’ redshirt freshman, was targeted repeatedly on the opening two drives of the game. Virginia Tech gained just 20 yards on nine plays between the two drives, both of which ended in punts. Hill wasn’t tested again until after halftime.

“Every game I think they’re going to come after me,” Hill said. “Their offensive coordinator says, ‘he’s just a redshirt freshman, he’s only 5’10,” so it’s like we can just pick on him all day. That’s what I love.”

Hill is the latest in a long line of undersized cornerbacks to thrive at Delaware, a distinction held by many former all-conference selections, including Tyrone Grant (5’9’’, 2010), Travis Hawkins (5’10’’, 2013) and Justin Watson (5’9’’, 2017).

Watson’s broken leg in the first game of the season opened the opportunity for Hill to start against Virginia Tech. Seven games later, as a regular in the defensive secondary, he now leads Delaware in pass breakups (7) and has registered 22 tackles.

“I was very nervous,” Hill said of his first start, which he described as the best experience of his life. “Knowing that my first start was against Virginia Tech and that my coaches believed in me was a very humbling experience. I said to myself the whole week, ‘you’re good, you’re good for this, you’re built for this, you’ve been training for this all your life.”

With Watson out for the season and fellow cornerback Tenny Adewusi, who has missed the last three games after injuring his wrist against William & Mary, likely out for at least the rest of the regular season, Hill now rarely comes off the field. He is one of only three freshman (linebacker Colby Reeder and wide receiver Gene Coleman II are the others) receiving significant playing time in November.

Hill was dealt his first hand of adversity when Towson’s Sam Gallahan made a one-handed grab, with Hill on his back, to clinch the Tigers’ 18-17 victory against Delaware.

In response, Hill made an effort to work more with redshirt junior cornerback Malcolm Brown in the week leading up to the Blue Hens’ game against Maine to learn how to improve in press coverage. Had Hill been able to “reroute” Gallahan at the line of scrimmage, he believes he would’ve been in a better position to make a play.

“Having that downfall, I feel like it made me better, because coming from a redshirt freshman, not really giving up too much this whole year and having that game-winning touchdown on me really humbled me,” Hill said. “I’m far from perfect, and I always have stuff to work on.”

Brown, Watson, Adewusi and junior safety Nasir Adderley compose a group that Hill calls his “big bros.” He spends time with each, trying to “pick their brains.”

The Delaware defensive backs wear towels with the numbers, 22 and 8 for Watson and Adewusi respectively, as opposed to their own numbers. Hill says the secondary unanimously dedicated this season to both players immediately after each went down.

Hill was the first player to commit in his freshman class, which includes Reeder, safety Tim Poindexter and defensive end Sal Mauro. As an undersized player, Hill went under recruited — receiving just four offers, including two he described as “soft.” Initially, Hill wanted to commit to Old Dominion, but was told he couldn’t because they were waiting to hear from other players. Once Delaware expressed interest, Hill couldn’t wait to lock it in.

“Delaware was the one who showed me the most love,” Hill said. “They showed me that they were actually interested in me … once they showed me that loyalty, I was like that’s all I needed, all I needed was one opportunity, and I feel like it’s been working out for me so good, so far.”

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