Now healthy, Hill could provide spark for Lions' D-line

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News
Lion defensive end Jordan Hill had 5.5 sacks in 2014 with the Seattle Seahawks.

Allen Park —It’s been three years since defensive tackle Jordan Hill appeared on the cusp of a breakout, before a string of leg injuries slowed the young lineman’s momentum.

An unrestricted free agent this past offseason, a handful of teams still saw potential in the young lineman, but it was the persistence of defensive line coach Kris Kocurek that led Hill to sign with the Detroit Lions.

“He was calling almost every day,” Hill said. “It got to the point where my wife would say, ‘Was that the coach from Detroit again?’ ”

It’s been a frustrating two years for Hill, a former third-round pick who racked up 5.5 sacks and four batted passes during his second season in 2014. That’s when the injuries began to mount. He finished that season on injured reserve with a calf injury, missed significant time in 2015 with quadricep and toe issues and landed back on injured reserve last season because of the calf.

Despite those issues, the Lions liked what they had previously seen on film from Hill.

“He was playing really well a couple years ago and we could see that and he fits into what we do,” Lions coach Jim Caldwell said. “We’re looking for guys that have that balance of quickness and power. So, that’s one of the reasons why we certainly honed in on him.

“Also, a good friend of mine is Larry Johnson, who coached him in college at Penn State,” Caldwell said. “Larry’s had a lot of real, fine defensive linemen that have come out of Penn State and he spoke highly of this young man from Day One.”

To have an impact, Hill knows he has to find a way to stay healthy. His wife got him in touch with a specialist in Seattle this offseason, where he said they broke his body down to build him back up. And after one week of training camp, the difference has been noticeable. Despite sitting out Monday’s practice, he said after Sunday’s session he hasn’t felt this good in years.

Not only does Hill feel good, he’s looking more like that player that made life rough for opposing quarterbacks a few seasons ago. During the full-team scrimmage held at Ford Field over the weekend, he was the defense’s most consistent pass-rushing threat, generating three pressures and a quarterback sack.

“That’s just the player I am,” Hill said. “Once I smell blood, I keep attacking.”

Like many linemen who have come through Detroit before him, Hill loves the Lions’ scheme. For those on the line, it’s attack, attack, attack. He said the scheme he played in for Seattle was also aggressive, but this is on another level.

There is a path to a roster spot for Hill, thanks to Khyri Thornton’s six-game suspension to start the year. Haloti Ngata and A’Shawn Robinson top the depth chart, with Akeem Spence serving as the third man in the rotation after signing a three-year deal with the Lions this offseason. Hill is competing with rookie Jeremiah Ledbetter for the fourth spot, although it’s conceivable both make the team.

Spence, like Hill, has been disruptive rushing the passer during the first week of camp. The Lions lacked a consistent pass rush last season, and while much of the focus has been on the team’s depth and talent at defensive end, a boost from the interior could go a long way toward alleviating some of the concerns.

“I don’t know if you’ve seen us practice much, but Akeem Spence and J-Hill are friggin’ beasts,” Ngata said. “They’ve just been creating pressure and stopping the run together.”

The Lions got only 4.5 sacks combined from their defensive tackles last season and 5.5 the year before. In the five years Ndamukong Suh played for the Lions, he averaged 7.2 sacks.