Student of the game
K.J. Hill is not the fleetest of Ohio State’s wide receivers, nor the biggest. He doesn’t have the flashiest personality.
In fact, Hill can almost get lost in the mix if looking for assets that jump off the screen. But on a receivers unit that has helped carry Ohio State to the Big Ten championship game against Northwestern, Hill has been as important as anyone.
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The junior from North Little Rock, Arkansas, is second on the team behind Parris Campbell with 66 catches for 823 yards and is tied for third among receivers with six touchdowns.
And yet even interim receivers coach Brian Hartline has a hard time pigeonholing Hill.
“It’s kind of hard to put a finger on it,” he said.
But then he tried. Hartline had a successful NFL career despite also not being the fastest, biggest or flashiest. He appreciates what has made Hill successful.
“He’s a guy who wants to learn and takes his career very seriously,” Hartline said. “I’ve just really enjoyed working with him. He’s really a craftsman as a receiver.”
Hill agrees with that assessment.
“I’m not a burner, but I just know the game,” he said. “I’ve been playing since I was 5 years old. I’ve been in good systems. I study the game and know it so well, and that’s what I feel separates me.”
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K.J. — the initials stand for Keith Junior — has always been on the quiet side, said his mother, Diedra Peterson. He was also a prankster. Sometimes, Peterson said, he’d hide under his older sister’s bed and playfully tattle on her.
K.J. loved the outdoors.
“He used to love to walk the wilderness and fish and hunt,” his mom said. “We used to call him Daniel Boone.”
But his first love was sports.
“Once he got the football in his hands, it was over,” Peterson said.
As Hill developed into the No. 1 prospect in Arkansas, he figured he’d stay in the South. He certainly didn’t expect to become the first from his state to become a Buckeye.
“I’m an SEC kid,” he said.
The expectation was that he would play for his home-state school. He even committed in 2014. But he began having doubts when Arkansas offensive coordinator Jim Chaney took a job at the University of Pittsburgh and speculation grew — rightly, as it turned out — about the job security of Razorbacks coach Bret Bielema.
Hill also seriously considered Alabama. Ohio State entered the picture fairly late. As Hill watched Ohio State’s 2014 national championship season unfold, he became intrigued by coach Urban Meyer’s offense. Hill already had a relationship with Ohio State’s then-defensive coordinator Chris Ash, who’d been an Arkansas assistant a year earlier.
Hill’s concerns about feeling out of place in Ohio were allayed when he saw other Buckeyes from the South while he attended the championship celebration at Ohio Stadium.
“Then coach Meyer flies down and walks the halls of North Little Rock High, and that was all she wrote,” Peterson said with a hearty laugh.
But the fallout after he signed with Ohio State was anything but amusing. The Arkansas faithful didn’t take kindly to Hill spurning his home-state team.
“You turn from being a hometown hero to basically an inmate or traitor,” Hill said. “You got dirty looks, people talking about you on social media. That was crazy. That’s when I really grew up and saw people would really turn on you. People I thought were friends, people I thought loved me turned on me, and I grew up from there.”
Hill was just 17 at the time he enrolled at Ohio State. It was a hard thing for a kid to handle.
“Coach Meyer even knew about it,” he said. “He used to text me after I signed, (saying), ‘I’m praying for you.’ It felt like death threats — not actual death threats, but that’s how I felt.”
Peterson said that for a time, she didn’t want her son leaving the house by himself.
“Arkansas pretty much hated us,” she said.
Months after Hill enrolled, Peterson and Hill’s stepdad, Montez Peterson, moved to Columbus. Part of it was to be closer to K.J., but part was because of the vitriol caused by him not signing with the Razorbacks. Hill’s dad and stepmom remain in Arkansas.
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Hill redshirted as a freshman but quickly earned playing time in 2016. Last year, he led the Buckeyes in catches with 56. With Dwayne Haskins Jr. throwing darts this year, Ohio State’s passing game has exploded. Hill earned third-team all-Big Ten honors.
“K.J. has been very pivotal for our offense this year,” Haskins said. “He’s a smart player. He’s very coverage-savvy and very aware when he runs his routes. Off the field, he’s a jokester. He’s a great guy and one of my best friends on the team.”
Hill’s most famous play came against Minnesota when he caught a pass one-handed for a touchdown and then acted in the end zone as if the ball was glued to his hand. That was a rare bit of flair for a player who’s usually more efficient and workmanlike.
“He's a real tough guy,” Meyer said. “He's got a little arrogance to him. And he's very talented. Not as fast as some of these other guys, but he's a student of the game. He's one of those guys that understands space, understands leverage. He's got great ball skills.”
Hill’s skill set would work well as a slot receiver in the NFL, and he’ll have to decide whether to forgo his final year of eligibility. Hill is on track to graduate with a communications degree in the spring.
“I have to weigh the pros and cons,” Hill said. “I’m really undecided.”
Peterson said that’s a discussion for another time.
“Whatever he decides, we’re going to support him,” she said. “But we haven’t even talked about it. We just want to win the Big Ten.”
Peterson said she’s just pleased that Hill has overcome the ugly end to his recruiting and flourished as a Buckeye.
“I’m proud of him,” she said. “He’s gone through some adversity and made it through.”