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Bill Haisten: Justice Hill will play four seasons at OSU, Mike Gundy predicts

April 5, 2018

STILLWATER — After his formal Q&A session with reporters on Wednesday, Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy lingered for a few more questions.

Among them: “What is your expectation on Justice Hill? One year from today, is he a participant in Oklahoma State spring practice? Or will he be preparing for the 2019 NFL draft?”

Gundy’s somewhat surprising prediction: Hill will be a Cowboy for two more seasons. He will want to graduate before he leaves for the NFL, Gundy stated.

If that is the case, and if the 5-foot-10, 190-pound Hill remains healthy, he would take aim at a tremendous distinction: He would have a chance to break Thurman Thomas’ 31-year-old program for career rushing yards. In 1984-87, Thomas ran for 5,001.

“It would be a good career goal when it’s all said and done,” Hill said, “but it’s not something I worry about at the moment.”

At Booker T. Washington, Hill was a statistical phenom in football and a National Honor Society student in the classroom.

At OSU, he has become an All-Big 12 running back with two-season totals of 2,609 yards, 21 rushing touchdowns and 14 100-yard performances.

At the end of his 2018 junior season, Hill will be three years removed from high school and eligible for the 2019 draft. In the 2017 draft, each of the top first five drafted running backs chose to leave school early and cash NFL checks.

If Hill were to play his way into the first round, the money is life-changing. Second-round money ain’t bad, either.

Last year, having departed from Florida State after his junior season, Dalvin Cook was a second-round pick of the Minnesota Vikings. As the 41st player selected overall, he got a four-year, $6.4 million contract. His guaranteed money amounts to $3.5 million.

If Hill’s 2018 junior season is equal to or greater than his 2017 sophomore season, he absolutely could be positioned a top-40 selection in the 2019 draft.

At the FBS level of college football, only four returning backs — Stanford’s Bryce Love, Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor, Florida Atlantic’s Devin Singletary and Boston College’s A.J. Dillon — had a greater 2017 rushing total than Hill’s 1,467 yards.

By more than 300 yards, Hill led the Big 12.

“He is extremely cerebral,” Gundy said. “He comes from a home where they have good, salt-of-the-earth, blue-collar values. They believe in community and doing things the right way. Not that leaving early (is wrong).

“I just won’t be shocked if he’s here to finish his degree and finish playing college football, and then have a 10-year career in the NFL.”

During Gundy’s 13-year run as OSU coach, six of his players have left early to enter the NFL draft: wide receivers Dez Bryant, Justin Blackmon and Josh Stewart, running back Joseph Randle, defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah and defensive tackle Vincent Taylor.

The 2017 Cowboys were the first Big 12 team to have a 4,000-yard passer (Mason Rudolph), two 1,000-yard receivers (James Washington and Marcell Ateman) and a 1,000-yard rusher (Hill).

As Rudolph, Washington and Ateman now count the days until the April 26-28 NFL draft, Hill becomes clearly designated as Oklahoma State’s premier playmaker. Last season, he averaged 5.5 yards per rush attempt.

During the Gundy era, Kendall Hunter was the most frequently used of the Cowboys running backs. In 2007-10, he had 708 carries.

Through two seasons, Hill has 474 carries. If his workload is sustained — and if he does play in Stillwater for two seasons, as Gundy predicts — Hill would finish with about 950 rushing attempts. Thomas is the only Oklahoma State running back ever to have gotten more than 900 carries, and he wound up with 989.

Hill needs 2,393 more yards to break Thomas’ career record. Considering that Hill nearly got nearly 1,500 last season, it’s an extremely realistic aspiration.

The combination of durability, speed and creativity defines Hill as OSU’s best player. Not just OSU’s best running back. He is OSU’s best player, and his value is amplified now that the Cowboys no longer have a veteran, NFL-caliber quarterback like Rudolph.

The majority of elite FBS running backs bolt for pro football immediately after they become eligible to do so. If Gundy gets a four-season run from a star like Justice Hill, it would be a bit of a surprise and a tremendous bonus for the program.