Provo • Long before he played in six games, started in two last year for BYU and learned what it felt like to be under the microscope as the Cougars' quarterback of the future, Taysom Hill got a taste of what it means to be targeted on the football field.
While a senior at Highland High School in Idaho, Hill was kicking off against crosstown rival Pocatello when an opposing player ran directly at him while his head was still down and applied a vicious hit that easily could have hospitalized the state's 5A All-Idaho Player of the Year. Hill recovered quickly and was able to quarterback his team to the win, while the player's coach was subsequently suspended for ordering the opening-kickoff cheap shot, and the play soon went viral on YouTube.
"In football, you can get hurt on any play, even the kickoff," Hill said nearly five years later.
And even on the last play of the game, as he learned last year against Utah State, suffering a major knee injury after a needless running play in the closing seconds of a 6-3 win that caused him to miss the rest of the season and signaled the beginning of the end for then-offensive coordinator Brandon Doman.
Hill is back, perhaps more quickly than most people suspected he would be, and ready to be the unquestioned leader of Robert Anae's "go hard, go fast" offense as BYU opens preseason camp on Saturday in Provo. The sophomore said in late June that his surgically repaired knee felt fine and that he could have played that week. He said his morning workout that day "was probably the hardest and fastest that I have ran since last October, and it felt really good. I felt fast and quick."
Now, four weeks away from the 2013 season opener at Virginia (1:30 p.m. MT, ESPNU), the task for BYU coaches will be to keep Hill healthy, all while they continue to install the uptempo offense introduced at spring camp. Anae said in June that so much time and energy has been invested in Hill since he was named the starter at the conclusion of spring camp that extraordinary steps have been taken to teach Hill how to protect himself.
"It has been emphasized daily," Hill said. "I had a conversation with coach Anae the other day. I don't know if he was joking. I mean, I hope he was joking. He said, 'If you don't slide in a game, I am going to pull you out.' Coach Anae and coach [Bronco] Mendenhall have all made that very clear, that the expectation is that I need to protect myself."
That won't be easy, because Hill is a good ball-carrier he rushed 55 times for 336 yards and four touchdowns last year before the injury and is still considered one of the fastest players on the team. He loves to show off his running ability, but Anae said called quarterback runs, like the one that got Hill hurt will be few and far between.
"Because I do believe we have running backs that are much better at called runs than the quarterbacks," Anae said. "So, why not let the running backs do the called runs? If things break down, I do believe he's got the ability to make things happen and create on the field, athletically. It is our job as coaches to teach him how to protect himself, because he does have the skills to protect himself. He absolutely has."
Mendenhall said last winter that the starting quarterback competition would be wide open, but early on in spring camp it became apparent that Hill was not only close to being 100 percent, but he also was the clearly the frontrunner to get the job. And when his primary competition for the spot, SUU transfer Ammon Olsen, went down with a minor knee injury in the spring game, there was no question that Hill was the man.
"There is evidence, to me, and coach Mendenhall, and our offensive staff, and I believe, to the team, that Taysom has qualities that would make a starting quarterback at any program, in any offense," Anae said, when asked why Hill earned the starting nod. "He's fast, he's physical. That arm can throw far, can throw short. He works well with teammates. He's accurate.
"Man, when you get a situation like that, then that's your quarterback. That's the position that is the most challenging on the field. I am very confident that he has all the qualities that we need in a quarterback."
Also confident is Hill's golfing partner and good friend, slot receiver JD Falslev.
"I have seen a lot of great competitors over the years, but I have never seen one like Taysom that competes day in and day out, every single time," Falsev said. "There are no gray areas, or anything like that, with Taysom. It is who he is. He is a born leader, and it shows by the way he works, on and off the field."
Hill's athleticism and leadership abilities are evident. What isn't clear to some is whether he can throw the ball accurately enough and avoid mistakes enough to help BYU beat some of the better teams on its 2013 schedule, such as Texas, Utah, Boise State, Notre Dame and Wisconsin. He completed 42 of 71 passes last year for 425 yards and four touchdowns.
"He can throw it well," said BYU quarterbacks coach Jason Beck. "He is not limited in the pass game at all. It is just that he also has that ability to run, and that might overshadow his arm a bit. He throws it accurately, and with touch downfield, especially on the deep balls. It is just a matter, with any young quarterback, of getting more consistent, getting more accurate and getting more quick with his decisions."
And staying healthy which BYU knows must happen for all those other things to occur, too.
Taysom Hill file
• 6-foot-2, 220 pounds
• From Pocatello, Idaho
• Played in six games and started two before suffering a season-ending injury against Utah State
• Completed 42 of 71 passes for 425 yards and four TDs as a freshman
• Carried the ball 55 times for 336 yards and four TDs in 2012 before injury