Why Kylin Hill's on-field transformation is one of the underrated SEC storylines of 2020
Between taking a stand against the confederate flag and being honored with a key to his hometown of Columbus, Mississippi, it has been easy to lose track of what’s facing Kylin Hill on the field in 2020.
Like, the the Mississippi State standout is playing in his 3rd offense in 4 years. And this one, Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense, is going to be drastically different from any he’s ever played in.
It won’t be the Dan Mullen offense that he signed up to play for as a 4-star recruit in 2017. It definitely won’t be the Joe Moorhead offense that saw him turn into more of a true workhorse, 1-dimensional back out of necessity with a struggling passing game.
Nope. When Hill signed up to return in Leach’s offense, he knew what he was getting into. While it surprised the masses to see Hill go from All-SEC early NFL Draft departure to returning Air Raid tailback, certainly Hill had a method to his madness — become a complete back. He’s all sorts of optimistic about it, too:
(As someone who has been banging the drum for Hill since the start of 2018, I’d like to say I do know his game. Just throwing that out there.)
The SEC’s 2019 leader in carries going to an Air Raid offense is certainly one of the underrated SEC storylines of 2020.
If you’re confused as to why this is a big deal, look no further than the numbers. There are numbers you probably already know: Leach’s offenses averaged at least 50 pass attempts per game in all but 1 of his 18 seasons as a Power 5 head coach. As a result, Leach’s lead backs at Washington State were used, um, differently:
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Let’s recap that.
Leach’s rushing offenses finished either dead last or next-to-last in FBS in 7 of his 8 years at Washington State. His lead backs averaged 101 carries per season, which breaks down to roughly 8 carries per game. In half of those seasons, Leach’s lead back didn’t hit 400 rushing yards in a season and they broke 650 rushing yards once. The only back to do that was actually Max Borghi in 2019. What was his reaction to Leach getting the MSU job, you ask?
Mood knowing I will be rushing more..😆 https://t.co/NcGXPiCbbq
— Max Borghi (@max_borghi) January 10, 2020
And go figure that Borghi actually got more carries than any lead back that Leach had in 8 seasons at Washington State. That was still 108 fewer carries than Hill had last year in Moorhead’s offense.
Speaking of Moorhead’s offense, before arriving at MSU in 2018, the previous 6 offenses he ran had a lead back who had a minimum of 268 touches and 1,738 yards from scrimmage. Hill’s injury-plagued 2018 season prevented that from happening in Year 1. In 2019, a healthier Hill had 260 touches and 1,530 yards from scrimmage. Because of how much Hill was needed to move the chains on the ground, he only averaged 20 catches in his 2 seasons with Moorhead.
If there’s a lock on anything in 2020, it’s that number will go up. Yes, I say that knowing there’s only a 10-game regular season. That’s a big reason Hill returned. He wants to show that he’s a modern back.
The 4 best NFL running backs, for my money, are Christian McCaffrey, Saquon Barkley, Ezekiel Elliott and Alvin Kamara. What do they all have in common? They have been in the league for 4 years or fewer, yet already have at least 1 season with 75-plus catches. Clyde Edwards-Helaire went from a rotational LSU back to a Round 1 pick after he racked up 1,414 rushing yards and 55 catches out of the backfield for the national champs.
Hill wants that next-level route tree. He’s capable of handling it, too. As a senior at Columbus High School, he caught passes out of the slot. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Leach roll out looks that hark back to Hill’s high school days.
It’s only a matter of time until Hill makes plays out of the slot that are reminiscent of Borghi last year:
Great route and catch from Max Borghi pic.twitter.com/zbdqZ2MLKZ
— alex byrne (@Abyrne44) April 27, 2020
By the way, that was 1 of 86 catches (!) that Borghi hauled in last year. That accounted for 40% of his touches from scrimmage. In 2018, James Williams had 83 catches as the lead back in Leach’s system. In 6 of his 8 years at Washington State, he had a lead back finish the year with at least 48 catches. His lead back had at least 71 catches in each of the past 3 years.
Starting to get the picture?
This isn’t just some preseason rhetoric about a coach being excited about the versatility of a back and promising to get them more involved in the passing game … only to watch their catches make a relatively small jump.
There’s going to be an adjustment. It’s not often you see a running back return to a Power 5 school following a breakout year in a draft-eligible season. It’s even less often that you see a running back sign up to play in a totally different offense that’ll undoubtedly take carries away from him.
But maybe the overall volume won’t really change as much as this shift in scheme would suggest. Borghi still had 213 scrimmage touches last year, which was only 3.6 fewer per game than Hill got as the main source of MSU’s offense. This quote that Leach gave shortly after accepting the MSU job is telling. Keep in mind that this was when Hill was still technically declared for the NFL Draft (via Clarion Ledger):
“I hope he leads the SEC in all-purpose yards,” Leach said. “In the Air Raid, one thing everybody forgets is the running back position gets most of the yards and gets most of the touches. They’re the closest to the quarterback. It’s easier to get them the ball than anybody.”
I mean, the guy has a point.
And why would Leach not want to get Hill as many looks as possible? No returning SEC running back forced more missed tackles on the ground than Hill (via Pro Football Focus). In this transitional year when Leach isn’t necessarily loaded with experienced Air Raid skill players — even K.J. Costello is a first-time Air Raid guy — it would make sense if the MSU coach made his best attempt to make good on that goal for Hill to lead the SEC in scrimmage yards.
Hill deserves credit for how he’s gone about this offseason on a variety of levels. Of course, being a part of massive social change will define his MSU legacy more than any carry or catch could. On the field, it’s fitting that Hill picked an atypical way to cap off what’s been an atypical college career.
Count me in the group who can’t wait to consume the final chapter.