When the game is on the line and Ohio State needs to make a big play in the passing game, K.J. Hill is often one of the players who rises to the occasion.
In each of the last three games in which Ohio State has faced second-half deficits, Hill has stepped up to make at least one big play that has helped the Buckeyes come back and win the game.
During the second half of the Buckeyes’ 31-20 win at Michigan last season, Hill had a pair of lengthy catch-and-runs (29 and 24 yards) to convert third downs, both of which ultimately led to field goal attempts.
In Ohio State’s third game of this season against TCU, he caught a 24-yard touchdown pass from Dwayne Haskins that gave the Buckeyes their first two-score lead in the game, 33-21, in a game they would ultimately win 40-28 but trailed earlier in the third quarter.
Then on Saturday at Penn State, Hill made his biggest play yet, turning a swing pass from Haskins into another 24-yard trip to the end zone for the game-winning touchdown in the Buckeyes’ 27-26 win.
“It was just a dream come true,” Hill said Wednesday when asked about Saturday’s game-winning touchdown. “The crowd was silent. You could hear a pencil drop when I scored. That was the best feeling, to make a crowd get quiet like that.”
Hill has often been the overlooked player in Ohio State’s six-man receiver rotation, the player who has quietly been one of the Buckeyes’ most reliable and productive pass-catchers without garnering much hype, but he’s consistently proven himself to be one of the Buckeyes’ best receivers and been a player who Ohio State’s quarterbacks – particularly Haskins, who filled in for an injured J.T. Barrett in the second half of last year’s game at Michigan – have turned to in key situations time and time again.
Perhaps the reason why Hill gets overlooked is that he doesn’t have any one physical trait that truly stands out. He doesn’t have the speed of Parris Campbell; he doesn’t have the height of Austin Mack or Binjimen Victor.
However, what makes Hill one of the Buckeyes’ best receivers – arguably, their best receiver – is how well-rounded his game is.
“He's a tough dude, man,” Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer said of Hill this week. “He's a really good football player. His ball skills … and he's a great blocker. So he can do it all.”
“The crowd was silent. You could hear a pencil drop when I scored. That was the best feeling, to make a crowd get quiet like that.”– K.J. Hill on his game-winning touchdown at Penn State
Hill has seemingly been at his best in the Buckeyes’ most competitive games; in addition to his plays in the three aforementioned big games, he had a career-high 12 catches for a career-high 102 yards in Ohio State’s 39-38 comeback win over Penn State last year.
That said, Hill believes the plays he has made in those games have been a product of his consistency, as he says he brings the same mindset onto the field regardless of the game or situation.
“I’m just out there taking it play-by-play, trying to make the right things to do. Just letting the game come to me, really,” Hill said. “Catching the ball, agility, running the ball; really, nothing extra, just the same player that I am.”
Hill currently leads Ohio State in receptions, with 27 catches for 318 yards; he led the Buckeyes in the same category in 2017, when he caught 56 passes for 549 yards. He’s also returned to his role from last season as the Buckeyes’ lead punt returner for the past two games – Demario McCall and C.J. Saunders handled punt return duties for the first three games – and been a regular on the kickoff coverage unit.
Pro Football Focus has graded Hill as the second-best wide receiver in all of college football through the first five games of the season.
That said, Hill also recognizes that his individual success goes hand in hand with his team’s success, and sometimes, making the big play is just about being in the right place in the right time – which he was Saturday, as Mack and Terry McLaurin picked up crucial blocks in front of him to clear his path to the end zone.
“I wouldn’t have been able to do it without Austin and Terry, so I give them a big shoutout,” Hill said. “The first thing I did when I came to the sideline was thank Terry and Austin.”