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Guerin Emig: Justice Hill is unusually tough, but can he bear unusual workload?

October 12, 2017

STILLWATER — Justice Hill swears he isn’t sore.

Could be that the Oklahoma State workaholic running back is putting up a heck of a front. Or he’s cut from different material than the rest of us. Or maybe it’s that he wasn’t just raised right by his parents, he was raised healthy.

“In high school I made sure I took care of my nutrition and all that stuff,” said Hill, who prepped at Booker T. Washington before joining the Cowboys in 2016. “My parents always had me on different kinds of vitamins, made sure I was replenishing everything I was losing during games. I had all kinds of different therapies and ice tubs. A couple massages every now and then. I’d go to the chiropractor and get adjustments. It was pretty routine.”

There are others would be broken by having to carry the ball 25 and 30 times in back-to-back Big 12 Conference games, Hill’s workload against TCU and Texas Tech. This guy?

“Sunday we have a lift. I lift pretty heavy,” he said. “Then we come out here and we run some hundreds. By Sunday night and Monday morning I feel brand new.”

All credit to the Big 12’s second-leading rusher who is on pace to surpass his OSU freshman-record 1,142-yard total of a year ago. Who is carrying a load last shouldered by a Cowboys running back in 2012, when Joseph Randle ran 25, 29, 24 and 32 times over a four-game stretch through October.

Randle was a powerful back, a future pro and the Big 12 rushing leader in 2012. But even he needed help by the middle of that season. Mike Gundy gave him some in the form of Jeremy Smith and Desmond Roland.

Randle put in less work his first three November games, before finishing strong against Oklahoma (four touchdowns) and Baylor (139 yards).

Kendall Hunter was Randle’s predecessor. He, too, was a future pro, and a league rushing champ in 2008.

Hunter shared carries with Keith Toston, Beau Johnson and even quarterback Zac Robinson that season. That kept him fresh enough to rip off a four-game run of 100-plus-yard efforts into mid-November.

The question, then: Is Hill shaping up to be a mold-breaker, a player so valuable and durable that the Cowboys ask him to bear their run-game burden as long as he can take it?

Or will help arrive like it did for Randle and Hunter?

“Justice is playing really well, and if we feel like he’s not fatigued, then we need him in the game because we think that he can change a game right now,” Gundy said this week. “Would I like to limit his carries? Sure. Do I have confidence in J.D.? Yes.”

Meaning J.D. King, Hill’s true freshman backup who has 33 carries to Hill’s 92.

“Is J.D. the runner that Justice is now? No,” Gundy continued. “So a combination of all of that has gotten him a few more carries than I would be comfortable with at this time.”

It’s a tough spot.

Gundy would prefer saving some tread on Hill’s tires, but he’s running so hard, so effectively. OSU is playing such tight, important games. You trust him before you trust a freshman learning both the rigors of college football and the importance of ball security (remember Hill’s two fumbles at Baylor last year?).

Hill has a year’s maturity on King, a year’s physical development. He has added 15 pounds since last season. He has repaired the shoulder he dislocated as a Booker T. junior.

“I played three seasons with a shoulder brace on,” Hill said. “It was getting annoying so I just took care of that at the end of last season.”

Seriously, the dude is a different breed of tough. If the Cowboys keep wanting to hand off to him, he’ll accept the responsibility willingly.

But another 25 or 30 times a game? OSU’s own recent history shows that’s a lot to ask over the first half of a season, and a little too much over the second.