The lost season left him unknown and nearly unwanted.
B.J. Hill had rare athleticism and size. He was a high school running back and linebacker playing in a defensive lineman’s body.
But when he showed up at a North Carolina State football camp in 2013, he was practically a mystery, a player without pedigree or a single Power Five offer.
Hill had dislocated his knee at West Stanly High School as a junior, a crucial year for recruiting. And he hailed from tiny Oakboro, N.C. — population 1,900 — an old railroad town in the center of the state, off the beaten path of college recruiters.
“That was a long season, because I got hurt and only played in the first game,” Hill told his hometown Stanly County Journal in 2017. “That year taught me that whenever you lose, all you can do is just move on to the next game and strive to be better.”
He earned a scholarship to N.C. State the hard way the following spring — impressing in college camps — only to be overshadowed on the defensive line by future top-five pick Bradley Chubb and fellow NFL draftees Kentavius Street and Justin Jones.
But once again, Hill has opened eyes and exceeded expectations — this time in the NFL. He is leading the Giants with 5.0 sacks, tying the franchise rookie record. The defensive tackle is just one of a number of rookie defenders who have shown promise in this Giants season.
Hill may be the headliner, but outside linebacker Lorenzo Carter — an athletic pass rusher selected three picks ahead of him in April at 66th overall — ranks third on the team with 3.0 sacks. He also has 35 tackles despite a backup role.
Carter is viewed as having more upside than even Hill.
Undrafted rookie cornerback Grant Haley has 23 tackles and made six starts. And second-year defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson has 47 tackles and started in all 13 games this season and all 16 as a rookie after being drafted in the 2017 second round.
While the attention this season has focused on the jaw-dropping skills of second-overall pick Saquon Barkley, the debate over Eli Manning’s future and the struggles of the offensive line, a number of young, rather unheralded defenders has shined for the Giants (5-8). They will have a chance to shine again Sunday when they host the Tennessee Titans (7-6).
In their 40-16 victory Sunday over Washington, the Giants registered five sacks — two by rookies. The 6-foot-5, 252-pound Carter — who has 4.46 speed — recorded a sack and five tackles. Undrafted rookie safety Sean Chandler had a sack and three tackles.
Defensive tackle R.J. McIntosh, a fifth-round pick, had two tackles. Haley had five tackles, and while undrafted rookie linebacker Tae Davis didn’t record a tackle, he has started two games and registered a sack.
Playing time has increased for some of the young linemen since October, when Damon Harrison was traded to Detroit.
“It’s been an opportunity not just for Dalvin, but an opportunity for about three or four other guys that were maybe playing eight snaps or five snaps or 10 snaps a game,” defensive coordinator James Bettcher said. “All those guys are getting more and getting more opportunities. With RJ coming back now, RJ’s getting more and more opportunities and he’s getting better each week.”
And Chandler earned extended playing time Sunday after Landon Collins was lost for the season to surgery.
Overlooked. Underrated. Unheralded.
But Hill has captured coaches’ attention since the very first practice of training camp.
Three of his five sacks came in a dominant Week 13 performance against the Chicago Bears, in which he tied the Giants rookie sacks record shared by LB Andy Headen (1983) and DT Cornelius Griffin (2000) (although he still trails Lawrence Taylor’s 9.5 sacks in 1981, which came a year before the NFL recognized it as an official statistic).
A week after recording those three sacks, Hill and company provided stalwart run defense against Washington. The Giants limited Adrian Peterson to just 16 yards on 10 carries.
”He was strong at the point of attack, penetrated and was able to separate himself from blocks to get the ball carrier,” Giants.com’s John Schmeelk wrote in his weekly film review. “He had the benefit of playing against a pair of tackles playing out of position at guard, but the rookie continues to show improvement.”
The 6-foot-3, 311-pound Hill has started nine games, recording 41 tackles and playing a vital role since Harrison’s departure.
He once might have been overlooked. Underrated. Unheralded. But now he is getting noticed around the NFL.
This week, Sports Illustrated’s MMQB listed him as among “the best of a great crop of defensive rookies.”
“Now we’re seeing him play with faster, sharper technique, which happens when a young guy gets more comfortable,” Andy Benoit wrote. “Hill might not have the initial burst to ever be a dominant top-shelf playmaker, but his mechanics, awareness and tenacity can make him an every down force.”
And Hill and Carter were chosen in November by Football Outsiders as part of its midseason top 25 breakout prospects list. Carter came in at No. 8 and Hill at No. 25.
Hill impressed Bettcher in camp and continues to do so.
“The thing that stood out the most is that he’s ahead of his time in terms of his maturity level,” the defensive coordinator said. “In the meeting room, on the practice field, the way he works, the conversation, you can rip his butt, you can coach him hard, lift him up, he can handle all that beyond what many rookies I’ve been around have been able to.
“And I think that’s why you’ve been able to see him [perform] late in the season. A rookie playing well late in the season is probably [seen] not as much as you see rookies flash early in the season. That probably speaks to his maturity level and how he’s worked in the process.”
The question now is, how far can he, Carter and their young teammates go.