Belleville West graduate Brian Hill was selected by the Atlanta Falcons in the fifth round of the NFL draft Saturday.
Hill, a record-setting running back at Wyoming, was the 12th pick of the round and the 156th overall. He had expected to hear his name called in the third round Friday or the fourth round Saturday, but he slipped to the fifth round.
Atlanta was 11-5 in the regular season and finished first in the NFC South. The Falcons advanced to the Super Bowl, losing 34-28 to the New England Patriots.
The 6-foot-1, 219-pound Hill set career records at Wyoming with 4,287 rushing yards and 35 rushing touchdowns. As a junior last fall, he set single-season school records with 1,860 yards and 22 rushing TDs, with just one fumble in 349 touches.
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Attempts to reach Hill were unsuccessful, but West coach Cameron Pettus closely followed the draft and was overjoyed when his former player was selected.
“We were ecstatic,” Pettus said. “Me and my wife (Erin) both jumped up and hugged each other. It got a little emotional. It’s a huge deal. We’re just so excited.”
Pettus acknowledged a bit of restlessness as the fourth round was completed and Hill wasn’t selected. Then there were another agonizing 11 picks in the fifth round before Atlanta made Hill its man.
“We were all nervous,” Pettus said. “We were all in constant contact with each other. Of course, Brian was rock solid, just being Brian. But I know we were feeling sick and anxious. I can’t imagine how him and his mom (Tamara) and his family felt. But we’re so relieved and so excited. It was awesome.”
Hill, a 2014 graduate of West, bypassed his senior season at Wyoming to enter the NFL draft. He has a 34-inch vertical leap and is expected to contribute to a Falcons backfield that already has Pro Bowler Devonta Freeman, Tevin Coleman and Terron Ward.
Freeman rushed for 1,079 yards and 11 TDs last season. He also had 54 catches for 462 yards and two TDs.
Pettus said Atlanta is a nice spot for Hill.
“They’ve got a fantastic quarterback,” Pettus said of Matt Ryan, the league’s 2016 MVP. “That’s a team that played in the Super Bowl. In the NFL, you’ve got to have a (good) quarterback, and they’ve got that guy. And they’ve got a good offensive line.
“They’ve got offensive weapons all over the place. It’s going to be tough for Brian, and he knows that. But he’ll do whatever he needs to do to contribute and make the team. Atlanta, as good as they are and as talented a team as they are at evaluating talent, wouldn’t take Brian without a plan. They wouldn’t use a fifth-round pick on somebody that they hadn’t planned for.”
Pettus said the qualities that have served Hill well to this point will be key at the next level, too.
“He has a very tenacious work ethic. He’s very competitive, which is going to carry him a long way,” Pettus said. “He absolutely loves football. He gets it at all levels when it comes to what it takes to be great and compete at that level.
“He’s going to a great team, too. That’s everything. Selfishly, we wanted him a little bit closer. But we don’t mind taking road trips down there. We’ll be doing it a lot.”
Before Hill, the Belleville District 201 player drafted was Belleville East offensive lineman Craig Heimburger (fifth round, Green Bay Packers, 1999). The last player drafted who graduated from West was offensive tackle Mike Simmonds (10th round, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 1987). Adoree Jackson, who grew up in Belleville and attended East his freshman year was drafted by the Tennessee Titans No. 18 overall Thursday.
Hill is the first Wyoming player drafted since Mark Nzeocha (seventh round, Dallas Cowboys, 2015) and the first Wyoming running back drafted since Ryan Christopherson (fifth round, Jacksonville, 1995).
Overall, Hill is the 81st Wyoming player taken in the draft.
Hill was the fourth Mountain West Conference player selected in the draft. The previous three were from San Diego State.
Atlanta also took cornerback Damontae Kazee in the fifth round (149th overall).