In a crowded backfield, Dontrell Hilliard is in range of a standout accomplishment.
With a strong finish, Hilliard, a junior from Scotlandville High, can become Tulane’s first 1,000-yard rusher in seven years and only the fifth in school history — despite sharing time with three other talented running backs in coach Willie Fritz’s option-based, zone-read offense.
“It (reaching 1,000 yards) would mean a lot,” said Hilliard, who has 724 yards and needs to average 92 yards in the final three games to get there. “That’s really not my biggest goal, but at the end of the day, I’d look at it as a big accomplishment. My biggest thing now is to get these wins so we can go to a bowl game.”
Hilliard's postseason dream could be much harder to reach than the 1,000-yard barrier. One more loss will guarantee a losing record, and Tulane (3-6, 0-5 American Athletic Conference) is on a 12-game conference skid entering Saturday’s trip to heavily favored Houston.
The key to the individual benchmark will be how many carries he gets while competing with fellow upperclassmen Josh Rounds, Lazedrick Thompson and Sherman Badie for playing time.
Rounds’ 6.3-yard average per carry (91 attempts, 574 yards) is the highest for Wave running backs, with Thompson close behind at 6.1 (58 carries, 362 yards). Hilliard averages 5.9 yards on his 122 rushes. Badie, back from injury, gobbled up another 16 carries in the past two weeks.
“We kind of coexist as a group with each other, but we are still competing,” Hilliard said. “At the end of the day, we are all trying to beat each other, so it keeps us on edge. Competition definitely makes you better, and that’s what we’re doing every day in every practice.”
Hilliard does not like talking about himself, but testimonials pour in from his teammates.
"He’s the total package,” guard Chris Taylor said. “He’s fast, he’s got good vision, he’s explosive, and he can run over you. He’s bouncing around trying to give energy to other guys, always trying to hype up practice. He’s really working his tail off to be able to get 1,000 yards.”
Hilliard’s versatility helps him in Fritz’s scheme, which prizes well-rounded backs. He is the same size as Badie (6-foot, 200 pounds) and has a similar style to Rounds (6-0, 205), running wide and up the middle with equal aplomb.
Tulane does not throw much, but Hilliard’s 33-yard reception on a go route set up a touchdown against SMU after he lined up at wide receiver.
“Dontrell is a whole different animal,” quarterback Glen Cuiellette said. “He just keeps on grinding. I see him in the training room sometimes and he’s nicked up. I wonder if he’s going to be able to play, and then all of a sudden I see him out there running people over, getting those tough yards, getting the first downs. He’s a big security blanket to me.”
This Saturday, Hilliard will return to the scene of his breakout performance as a freshman. With just about every other running back on the roster injured two years ago, he rushed for 81 yards on 25 carries, caught five passes for 107 yards and scored two touchdowns while the Wave stunned the Cougars 31-24.
He has kept that nose for the end zone. Last year, he led the Wave with six touchdowns while gaining a team-high 646 yards for an otherwise anemic offense under former coach Curtis Johnson.
Hilliard has upped that scoring total to nine touchdowns this season, putting him in striking distance of Orleans Darkwa’s 13 in 2011. It is the second-best total at Tulane behind Matt Forte’s 23 in 2007.
“It’s nice,” Hilliard said. “I try to get as many points on the board as I can to help this team. It gives us a better chance to win.”
Hilliard is humble, insisting he needs to improve his vision, balance and toughness to reach his potential. Maybe so, but he is starting from a high plane.
Last year, he averaged 2 yards more per carry than teammate Rob Kelley, who has become a rookie starter for the Washington Redskins. If Hilliard keep his current pace, he will join Forte, Mewelde Moore, Eddie Price and Andre Anderson on Tulane’s short list of 1,000-yard rushers.
Even a pair of muffed punts against Memphis that cost him his returner’s role did not slow Hilliard down. He followed with back-to-back 100-yard games against Tulsa and SMU, the fourth and fifth of his career.
“He’s very tough-minded,” Cuiellette said. “He is a good leader and just a resilient person.”