Jay Hill was running routes with his receivers at practice the other day, galloping like a horse over short stretches of turf, showing them how it’s done all proper.
OK, that’s a lie.
If he attempted to gallop, he did so like a Clydesdale, moving more at a slow trot, huffing and puffing. There might have been elements of instruction in it, but, really, he was goofing around, trying to put some humor in his players’ hearts, demonstrating for them the way an old, washed-up defensive back and current head coach would carve through a defense, making it pay, or at least making it laugh.
“Football should be fun,” Hill said. “I sure don’t want to go out to practice every day and have it feel like I’m prodding cattle. If you want it to be fun, you have to act that way.”
He quickly added: “Going out and getting your butt kicked is not fun.”
Hold it right there.
If we highlight a little Wildcats football here, some college fans might automatically burp, scratch, yawn and turn the page. Weber … yeah … State … right … University … whatever. It’s not Utah, it’s not BYU, it’s not Utah State, it’s not significant.
Fight off those burps, scratches and yawns. Stay with us.
And note what’s happening in Ogden under Hill, because it is notable.
NO. 3 WEBER STATE VS. NO. 24 NORTH DAKOTA
Where • Stewart Stadium, Ogden
When • Saturday, 2 p.m.
It should be processed and appreciated. The Weebs have gained some notoriety over the past couple of years, but not enough. For home games, 16,600-seat Stewart Stadium typically is about half-full, or half-empty, depending on your way of looking at it. There was a rightful public outpouring when the coach’s wife, Sara, battled non-Hodgkins lymphoma a while back, a fight she’s won, thankfully. But the football’s been miraculously good, too.
For 100 years, the Wildcats have been playing the game, but never better than the way they’re playing it now. Just because it’s not at the biggest, baddest level of football shouldn’t undercut or dismiss it. If that were legitimate, if it were required to generate interest, nobody would pay attention to any of the college games, focusing instead solely on the NFL.
“Gary Andersen told me a long time ago, FCS football is unbelievable,” said Hill. “You see three or four trick plays a game, it’s fun, it’s exciting, coaches let it rip. It’s good football, we’ve got great players.”
Brent Myers, Weber’s associate head coach, a man who has coached for 37 years at all levels, put it this way: “If you’re a true fan of football, here you get to see kids who really want to play. They’re playing football because they love it. They couldn’t care less what anybody thinks. And the brand is really good. You’re going to see wide open football, aggressive defense and offense from the coaches. The effort level is fantastic.”
Hill’s Wildcats, in particular, are worthy.
They currently hold the highest national FCS ranking in school history. They are third in the country, a ranking they held for a time last season. They are first in the Big Sky Conference, sitting at 5-0 and still rising. They’ve already beaten three other ranked FCS teams, the most recent a 36-17 road win last week against Troy Taylor’s then-No. 6 Sacramento State.
All told, Weber is 7-2, with the only blemishes coming against Mountain West teams San Diego State and Nevada. The Wildcats lost those two games by a total of 12 points, with the Aztecs managing a mere six points. The downside is that the Cats’ attack got goose-egged in San Diego. Still, the Aztecs are 7-1 and ranked 24th in the latest AP poll, among the big schools.
JAY HILL’S WEBER RESUME
Overall, conference records at Weber State:
2014 • 2-10, 2-4
2015 • 6-5, 5-3
2016 • 7-5, 6-2
2017 • 11-3, 7-1
2018 • 10-3, 7-1
2019 • 7-2, 5-0*
* Going into Saturday’s game vs. North Dakota
The Wildcats have won six straight. They’ve won 12 straight and 24 of their last 26 Big Sky games. Since 2016, they are 30-4 in league. They play rugged defense, ranking first in the conference this season and they have a knack for separating opposing offenses from possession of the ball, ranking first in the nation in turnover margin. They are a plus-14 there. They are first in the Big Sky and third in the country in red zone scoring at 93.5 percent. They’ve been ranked in the FCS Top 10 for 18 straight weeks and 21 of the past 22.
Bill Belichick couldn’t have led them any better than that.
“Jay is super-bright, super-detailed, super-organized,” said Myers. “Everything we do, we do with purpose. … Plus, he’s got a relationship with every kid. He’s got a passion for the game and for the players. He loves the players. And they love him.”
Hill may not run routes all crisp and tight, but the former Utah player and assistant took over at Weber six seasons ago, suffering through a 2-10 season, and then completely altered the trajectory of the program, especially over the past three years, in each of which the Wildcats have made the FCS playoffs. His teams have won back-to-back league titles, gaining at least 10 wins each time, an achievement that’s a first for the school. They’ve made it to two straight FCS playoff quarterfinals. Last year, they were the No. 2 seed.
The only hill left for Hill to climb is to win a national championship.
“Is the national championship on our minds, is it a goal for us?” he said. “Absolutely.”
At 44, Hill remains young enough to move on to a larger program, and while he’s likely interested in checking out whatever possibilities exist, his accomplishments are no less impressive on account of where he’s done them. It may, in fact, be the opposite.
“We’ve lost nine or 10 assistants to programs like UCLA, Utah, BYU, Oregon State,” he said. “But I love this place. It would take something extra special for me to leave. We’ve had opportunities, but I’m not looking to jump. I’ve got 110 players counting on me here to do the right thing. I don’t get hung up on it, I don’t think about it.”
His coaching at Weber is both a reflection and a compilation of his primary mentors and others he worked with at Utah — Ron McBride, Urban Meyer, Kyle Whittingham, Dan Mullen, Kalani Sitake, Andersen, Morgan Scalley, Aaron Roderick.
Whittingham’s approach made an unmistakable impression.
Not only is Hill the head coach, he’s also the defensive coordinator, and the Wildcats plainly demonstrate that lean. Defense is king among them, along with a formidable ground game, being generated this season by a combo-pack of running backs, led by Josh Davis. The sophomore has come on strong in recent games, gaining 575 yards over the past three, with six touchdowns, on 75 carries.
“There are recipes for success,” Hill said. “You can chuck it all over the field for 500 yards, but you end up 6-6. You win championships by playing defense, not turning the ball over, running the ball. I don’t mind throwing it, though. We build our success on the talents of our players. Each year is a little different. That’s deep in my roots.”
Myers summed up his boss’s stance on both sides of the ball in one word: “Attack.”
Hill said recruiting is the absolute foundation of any program, including his: “It always starts with the players.”
Said Myers: “He knows how to recruit his backyard.”
In his time, Hill has doubled the number of key on-field contributors from within the state of Utah, adding, however, that he couldn’t care less if a player was from the other side of the planet, as long as he brings positives to the team.
“If we’re good at building relationships and trust, that we have something to offer, we’re selling all those things to young kids,” he said.
Young kids are buying.
Weber State’s upgrades in facilities, including a football-specific building at the north end of its stadium with a large weight room, meeting rooms, locker rooms, coaches’ offices, have helped.
Ultimately, though, Weber’s winning has come from the people in and around the program, led by Hill and his assistants, and this present roster of players, anchored by the winningest senior class the school has ever seen.
“That’s something that is special to me,” Hill said. “This is the most complete group we’ve had. They’ve accomplished so much. I’m proud that they bought into our system. It’s a tribute to a bunch of guys who work hard, who are close-knit. They’ve elevated the program.”
A program worthy of suppressing yawns and staying on the page.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.