It was football’s seventh practice of the preseason, and senior Denzel Hill made two catches the entire afternoon.
That might seem unimpressive for a wide receiver, but after three years on offense, Hill had switched over to cornerback, and those two interceptions provided an early confidence boost.
“[During that practice] I started to realize how natural of a defensive player I am,” Hill said.
That practice was just Hill’s second since making the decision to switch positions. A crowded depth chart at wide receiver and Hill’s desire to pursue professional football led head coach Al Bagnoli to suggest the change midway through training camp.
Hill was initially taken aback by the suggestion. He had been a two-way player of sorts in high school, but his secondary position was kicker—not cornerback. Despite a long history of playing defense in sports ranging from soccer to ice hockey, when it came to football, Hill was all offense—until now.
Hill is by no means the first receiver to switch to cornerback at an advanced stage of his college career. Several prominent NFL cornerbacks are converted college receivers, including Seattle Seahawks star Richard Sherman, a three-time First Team All-Pro who did not play defense until his junior season at Stanford.
Sherman and Hill are unique in another way—their size. Cornerback, more so than perhaps any other position, requires speed and quickness, and traditionally the position is manned by relatively lithe players. Sherman, at 6-foot-3 and 195 pounds, breaks the mold, and his size helps him play a physical style of press coverage.
Hill has nearly the same measurements, standing 6-foot-3 and weighing 200 pounds, and also boasts impressive all-around athleticism. As a high-school senior, he participated in a regional Nike SPARQ combine, which involved several drills designed to assess speed, strength, and quickness. His final score ranked 15th out of more than 1300 fellow athletes.
That raw athleticism put teammates and coaches on notice even in the early stages of Hill’s defensive career. Senior wide receiver Cameron Dunn—Hill’s long-time suitemate and fellow receiver—quickly became acquainted with the challenges of lining up against Hill in practice.
“He’s not someone you can take lightly,” Dunn said. “You have to lock in.”
For his part, Hill relied on his athleticism to smooth the transition as he adjusted to some of the more nuanced aspects of the position. According to Hill, locating the ball in the air while maintaining coverage has proved especially challenging.
“I’m so used to locating as a receiver: look up, head up to the sky,” Hill said. “But at corner, you have to lean and locate. It’s a different technique [for] attacking the ball.”
Columbia also frequently runs press coverage, which pits cornerbacks one-on-one against wide receivers. That gives Hill little margin for error, and, according to defensive backs coach Jon Poppe, the technique can be difficult to learn, even with the senior’s size and athleticism.
“He can run with anybody, he can flip his hips. ... There are things you can’t coach [that] he can do,” Poppe said. “Some of the finer points of playing the position—because we are a press coverage team—[are] not always the easiest to do if you’ve never really done [them] before.”
There is, of course, another glaring distinction between Hill’s former position and his new one: the contact. Instead of absorbing tackles, Hill is now the one dealing them out. According to Hill, tackling, though it often appears chaotic at full speed, requires a great deal of technique.
“I’ll put it this way: Tackling is a skill,” Hill said. “[But] it’s a fun transition, because it’s such an inverse relationship between [tackling and being tackled]. It is very satisfying knowing that you’ll be the one initially giving the aggression.”
Hill has yet to lay a big hit on Dunn at practice, but he has embraced every other aspect of the position change. After just a few weeks, he cracked the two-deep depth chart, and is currently listed as the backup to junior Cameron Roane. As Hill continues to develop, he seems primed for playing time sooner rather than later.
“You [take] a raw piece of clay, and every day you can see it molding into what looks like a piece of art,” Poppe said. “[Hill] is beginning to learn how to be a [defensive back] rather than a receiver who’s trying to play [defensive back].”