Freshman Daxton Hill's role with Wolverines is ascending quickly

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — Michigan freshman safety Daxton Hill is ready for more playing time, that much is clear.

Just ask Rutgers’ Avery Young, who was drilled by Hill on a punt return last Saturday. Hill finished with four tackles and was in on a tackle for loss.

There is, however, a process for freshman players, the preference being to bring them along slowly to make sure they have a firm grasp of their jobs. Hill, a five-star recruit and the jewel of this class, appears to be on the verge of more playing time as Michigan prepares to face Iowa on Saturday at Michigan Stadium.

Daxton Hill

“I felt before the (Rutgers) game he was ready for more or we wouldn’t have put him out there,” Partridge said before Wednesday's practice. “It’s funny, you got a freshman, you throw him out there, he gets burned for a touchdown, people will be saying how much he sucks. The bottom line is, we need to make sure he’s ready to not hurt the team, hurt himself and go make plays out there.

“He’s in the back end, it’s not like you can hide him. But going into the game, we felt comfortable. I wasn’t nervous at all. I felt the role we were going to ask him to do, he was going to do and do it at a high level, and he did.”

Partridge joked when asked his reaction to the hit Hill laid on Young.

“It’s about time,” Partridge said, laughing. “Great time, great play. The week before (against Wisconsin) he got down there and was a little tentative, so now we got him to make that hit. That’s an expectation.”

What he showed on that hit wasn’t just how physical he is but his closing speed.

“He’s the fastest guy on kickoff, on punt,” Partridge said. “He’s maybe the fastest guy on the team.”

Partridge wasn’t holding back from playing Hill earlier just because. Hill arrived in the early summer and had to get adjusted to school, the playbook and workouts. Last Monday night on the "Inside Michigan Football" radio show, Partridge said people should hit the brakes and let Hill get comfortable and confident.

But with safety J’Marick Woods out last week, Hill got his chance and was called on mostly in third-down situations.

“He’s a great cover. He’s got elite coverage skills,” Partridge said, explaining why Hill played on those downs. “His thing is just making sure we’re training his eyes and he understands what route combinations could possibly be coming based on who he is defending, splits, all that stuff, but he’s getting there, so we felt comfortable, hey, because of his coverage skills and now because of his knowledge out there, puttin’ him in.”

Hill's play as a gunner also has ensured him more playing time. Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh doesn’t overly gush about players publicly but after the Rutgers game he said middle linebacker Cam McGrone could be a “star” if he continues to play as he has, and  shared his opinion of Hill.

“I’m not going out on a plank,” Harbaugh said, before correcting himself, “or limb — that would be a better analogy — but he’s going to be really good. He picks up stuff really fast and he’s really good.”

Harbaugh said Hill was tentative in the Wisconsin game, took the coaching the following two weeks and took the next step.

“No hesitation,” Harbaugh said after the Rutgers game. “You saw him make one of those big-time plays as a gunner.”

Michigan running backs coach Jay Harbaugh, who assists on special teams with Partridge, described Hill as “businesslike” and extremely mature.

“As a young guy to come in and not have any lag time of having to figure stuff out has been pretty cool to watch,” Jay Harbaugh said Wednesday. “He also practices like a maniac and really, really takes coaching. When you watch a game, like the week before there were a couple plays he didn’t make, and then you watch the next week and he makes them, it’s really cool. It’s why coaches love doing their job to see a guy go out and fix his mistake and get that satisfaction from putting the work in.

“He’s maniacal, just speed and focus and intensity. If you give him something to do, he’ll get it done.”

That's the type of adjustments and eagerness to learn that gets players more playing time.

“Great football players don’t make the same mistake twice. The elite ones,” Partridge said. “They learn from whatever it is and they fix it right away. He was able to do that, which is huge. Obviously, it’s a very fluid game where there’s a lot of things going on, so mistakes are going to happen. It’s our job as coaches and the players’ job to adapt to anything that happens and get it fixed.”

Woods practiced some on Tuesday, Partridge said, but even if he’s good to go, Hill has earned more playing time.

“He’s gonna play,” Partridge said. “We’re gonna get roles for him, so hopefully the top two guys keep playing well. Hopefully Woods gets healthy and adds a third guy in there, and then Daxton, so we’ve got a good little crew there and we’ll get them jobs and what their strengths are and keep rolling.”

But even as Partridge speaks of Hill and notes that he’s “progressing” like a freshman should, and that he’s getting more comfortable playing, it sounds almost as though he doesn’t want to cast too bright a light on the safety’s obvious potential.

And then, the coach says something revealing, and it becomes clear Hill is ready for breakout playing time.

“He’s above and beyond what you would normally expect out of a freshman,” Partridge said. “We’re very, very happy with him.” @chengelis