When the high school football season began in earnest back in August, veteran St. Peter’s Prep head coach Rich Hansen said that he had any of four running backs that he could count on to carry the ball for the Marauders.
However, as the season begins to wind down toward the upcoming NJSIAA state playoffs, it’s obvious that one Marauder back has set himself above and beyond the rest in the Prep backfield, namely junior speedster Jonathan Hilliman.
“Jon can run any one of the plays in our playbook,” Hansen said. “He also has the size, the speed, the strength. He’s big, strong, fast and elusive. He has good balanced and he has that breakaway gear. The thing that Jon also does better than the rest is that he blocks well. He’s really excellent at that.”
So is there anything not to like about the 6-foot-1, 210-pound Hilliman?
“It’s never been a question of Jon’s physical ability,” Hansen said. “It’s all about making him more of a mature runner with a mature attitude. He needed to develop mental toughness. I have really high expectations of him, maybe higher than any other back we’ve ever had. I just feel that Jon can do it all. I’m constantly on him to step up his game.”
It was all about intangibles rather than skill.
“Whether he’s coachable, whether he can accept criticism, whether he’s willing to learn and improve,” Hansen said. “That’s what we’ve been looking for from Jon.”
Hilliman knew that he had his work cut out for him if he wanted to succeed this season.
“I knew that we had a strong stable of backs,” Hilliman said. “I knew that I had to be patient, that nothing was entitled to me. I had to work hard to get better and earn my place. I always thought I had the capability of becoming the go-to guy.”
And as for Hansen’s criticism?
“I’d say that last year, I had a tendency to get frustrated if things didn’t go my way,” Hilliman said. “I realized that I had to stay patient and understand that every play is not a home run. I had to work on my blocking, my pass catching, all aspects of what makes a good running back. I think I’ve improved a lot. I’ve come leaps and bounds with my maturity. I’ve definitely improved with the mental aspect.”
In recent weeks, Hilliman has seen his workload increase – albeit by design.
“We wanted to have him battle tested for when the playoffs began,” Hansen said. “So we’ve increased the number of carries he’s been getting, like 15-to-18 each week. Maybe he’ll get 20 when we face Dover [of Delaware, the Marauders’ final regular season game]. I’m looking forward to see what he can do down the stretch.”
If last week’s performance against Bayonne is any indication, then Hilliman is definitely ready. The standout junior carried the ball 18 times for 228 yards and scored six touchdowns, tying the school record for touchdowns in a game held by current Rutgers back and two-time Reporter Most Valuable Player Savon Huggins, leading the Marauders to a 62-0 victory.
For his efforts, Hilliman has been selected as The Hudson Reporter Athlete of the Week for the past week.
Hilliman is rapidly approaching 1,000 yards for the season. He’ll enter this weekend’s showdown with North Bergen just 113 yards of the milestone. Not bad, considering the Marauders lost one regular season game with the forfeit win over Kearny.
“He just needs to continue to develop,” Hansen said. “Physically, he’s as gifted as anyone we’ve had. It’s all about how mentally tough he gets. He’s going to be as good as his mind takes him. But he can be one of the best.
Added Hansen, “He’s freaky as an athlete. He has all the intangibles you want in a running back. He has the complete package. He has great hands to catch the ball. We like to throw the ball to him a lot. The I-back is certainly the focal point of what we do offensively and that’s not going to change, so he has the potential to be a great one for us.”
Hilliman comes from a strong athletic family. His father, Dorrell, has been the long-time track and field coach at Franklin High School and his older brother, Nate, preceded Jonathan in the Prep backfield, before Nate graduated and moved on to play at William Paterson.
“My father has always been a pretty big influence on me,” Jonathan Hilliman said. “He always stressed academics first and that remains important in my life. It helped having my older brother with me. He’s been like the echo to my Dad, making sure I did the right things. He played at the same school, so he knows what’s going on.”
Because of his father’s influence, Jonathan has been involved in track and field as well during his time at Grand and Warren, finishing sixth in the long jump last spring in the NJSIAA Non-Public A state championships. Hilliman also participates in the 100, 200 and 400-meter dashes for the Marauders in the spring.
“I grew up running track, so it’s always going to be a part of my life,” Hilliman said. “It has helped me to get faster as a football player and helped with my conditioning. One hand does wash the other in that respect.”
Hilliman is already a major NCAA Division I prospect. He’s already received interest from schools like Wisconsin, Michigan, Miami, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Oregon and Rutgers.
“He already has a bucket full of offers,” Hansen said. “He’s a special athlete and a very bright kid.”
Hilliman isn’t worried about making a decision about college just yet.
“I definitely think I’ve done a good job in keeping all of that on hold,” Hilliman said. “It wouldn’t be fair to my teammates if I concerned myself too much with it now. I have to keep myself 100 percent focused. I have to keep a level head. It’s flattering to receive all that attention, but it can wait. We have a big game against North Bergen this week and to them, it’s the Super Bowl. If they beat us, they can talk about it for the rest of their lives. I know they’re chomping at the bit to take us out.”
It’s refreshing to know that Hilliman seems to have all of the aspects of his life finally in order _ and he still has another year of high school ahead of him.
“My Dad always reminds me that guys come and go in high school,” Hilliman said. “I have to make sure that I continue to do the right things. It’s definitely an honor to be able to tie the school record, one that’s held by Savon, someone who I respect. I’m excited to be in the same company.”
And who knows? If Hilliman can continue his progress, he could very well turn out to be even better than what Huggins was for the Marauders.
“That says a lot, but I can’t get too big of a head,” Hilliman said. “I can’t believe the hype.”
Seems as if Hilliman knows exactly where he stands. – Jim Hague
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com.