Hill climbing up Browns depth chart

Published 12:00 am Friday, August 13, 1999

The Associated Press

BEREA – Madre Hill weaved his way through the Cleveland Browns’ celebration, dipping his shoulders and ducking around outstretched arms.

Friday, August 13, 1999

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BEREA – Madre Hill weaved his way through the Cleveland Browns’ celebration, dipping his shoulders and ducking around outstretched arms.

Finally, Hill was stopped at the 50-yard line by Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. Like Hill, Jones played college ball at Arkansas.

Their conversation was a quick one.

”We shook hands and I said, ‘I can’t believe you passed on me in the draft,”’ Hill said. ”And he said, ‘I can’t believe it either.”’

Soon, there may be plenty of NFL executives who feel the way Jones does.

Hill, coming back from two major knee surgeries, has been one of the biggest surprises in Cleveland’s training camp, and if his debut was any indication, he could be one of the biggest steals in this year’s college draft.

Hill was regarded as one of the top college running backs in the country in 1995, gaining a school record 1,387 yards at Arkansas with 15 touchdowns. But injuries to both knees forced him to miss the entire 1996 and ’97 seasons.

Last year, he rushed for 669 yards with the Razorbacks, but didn’t have the same explosiveness or breakaway speed. Once a sure bet to be drafted in the first round, and certainly no later than the second, Hill didn’t get picked until the seventh round when the Browns grabbed him with the 207th overall selection.

He looked good during drills, but who doesn’t? As the third-string back behind Terry Kirby and Sedrick Shaw, Hill wasn’t getting many reps and Browns coach Chris Palmer was eager to see how the 23-year-old performed in game conditions.

On the sideline for Monday night’s Hall of Fame Game, Hill couldn’t stand still waiting for his chance to get in.

”I was pretty wired,” he said. ”My special teams coach kept telling me, ‘Calm down, Madre. Calm down.’ Coach Palmer was ready to see what I could do, and I was ready to show it.”

Hill made the most of his opportunity against the Cowboys, carrying 10 times for 62 yards. He broke off a 28-yard run in the fourth quarter as the Browns rallied for a 20-17 overtime win in Cleveland’s NFL game since 1995.

He seemed to gain momentum as the game progressed, picking up 40 yards on his last three carries. That’s been his style since the days he was a high school national player of the year.

”I might get two yards, I might get three. And then I might get 28, and then I might get 61,” he said. ”That’s just the way I am. I just go with the movement of the game and try to get better with each and every run.”

He’s been gaining the same kind of momentum with each and every practice.

His performance against the Cowboys impressed Palmer to the point where he wants to have Hill work with the first unit this Saturday when the Browns play at Tampa Bay.

”We would like to upgrade him, working against the second team and eventually maybe working against the first team,” Palmer said. ”You talk to anyone in the Southeastern Conference and he was a pretty good back there before he got the knee injury. But he’s come back and showed he’s got some speed.”

Every day, Hill gets asked about the health of his knees. He gives the same answer over and over.

”They’re fine,” he said the other day. ”No problem.”

But Hill, who has bulked up from 199 pounds to 208, did spot a few problems with his performance Monday and wants to show the Browns he can improve.

”I was happy in some parts, and in some parts I wasn’t,” he said. ”I wasn’t happy with the fact that on the 28-yarder that I didn’t take it all the way.”