College football: Hilliard to punt for Wingate
By Mike London
Phillip Hilliard’s current conversations are about hang time and get-off time.
There was a time when Hilliard was known for throwing and hitting baseballs, but the 2006 Salisbury graduate will be Wingate’s starting punter when the Bulldogs kick off a new football season Saturday.
“I’m really confident,” Hilliard said. “Camp and scrimmages have gone well, and I’ve had the experience of pitching in front of crowds in college. That’s going to help a lot.”
Hilliard spent four years on the varsity baseball team at Salisbury, and his intensity, power and left arm fueled a climb by the Hornets from 5-16 to 17-9 during his stay. He batted .351 for his career with 93 hits and 10 homers. He also won 14 games on the mound.
Hilliard’s junior year was sensational. He was Rowan County Player of the Year, racking up eight pitching wins for a 14-10 team while batting .367 with 26 RBIs.
Pain in the lefty power pitcher’s elbow flared up his senior year when he had to be used mostly as a reliever but he still had his moments, including a game in which he slammed two homers in a single inning.
Hilliard was recruited by Wingate to pitch, and he decided to sign with the Bulldogs rather than hometown Catawba because he wanted to go away to school, make new friends and have fresh experiences.
The going-away stuff went well. He’s always been a solid student and has done fine in his sports management classes. He’s on track to graduate in May, although his punting prowess could change his plans.
The pitching part of the equation never worked out at Wingate. His arm never came back to where it was his junior year of high school.
As a Wingate freshman in the spring of 2007, he started four times and went 0-2 with a shoe-size ERA. In 20 innings, he walked 19 batters and hit eight more, and that wasn’t the Hilliard people had seen in high school.
He was still eligible for American Legion ball in the summer of ’07, and his last chance to play at Newman Park was difficult to resist. But he was never 100 percent. He was 1-0 with a 6.60 ERA in just 15 innings.
“I think all the innings in high school just caught up with me,” Hilliard said. “That summer after my freshman year when I played Legion, I just wanted to be out there so bad. But looking back, I should’ve just rested my arm.”
As Wingate conducted fall baseball workouts his sophomore year, Hilliard realized his arm wasn’t coming back.
“I couldn’t get out of the slump I was in,” he said. “I had to let baseball go even though it just about killed me.”
Hilliard let baseball go, but he was always a good athlete. He was a captain in both baseball and football at Salisbury and won the Ludwig Award as the school’s Athlete of the Year for the 2005-06 school year.
He inherited a lot of his father’s talent. Craig Hilliard was a .300 hitter on the 1972-73 Rowan American Legion teams and drove in 70 runs in two seasons. He was drafted by the Atlanta Braves in the 19th round, although he turned down the Braves for college.
Phillip had always been pretty good kicking a football around the yard, and he took the art of punting seriously after Joe Pinyan became Salisbury’s football coach prior to the 2003 season. Pinyan needed a punter. He told Hilliard he was it.
Hilliard punted 118 times in three seasons, making all-county twice and averaging 36.4 yards per kick his senior year. Hilliard was also a guard two years for the Hornets before starting at center as a senior. He was an emotional member of the kickoff team. Fans will remember Hilliard and future East Carolina defensive end Scotty Robinson head-butting each other nearly into a state of unconsciousness and Hilliard screaming at the top of his lungs.
There was some interest in Hilliard’s football talent, although his future definitely appeared to be in baseball.
“I had offers to punt from Appalachian, James Madison and Averett coming out of high school, so I always knew I could punt OK,” Hilliard said. “When I gave up baseball I didn’t want to just sit around and do nothing, so I checked with Wingate’s football team.”
One thing he learned was Wingate’s regular punter was finishing his career in 2008. Hilliard joined the squad last season with the idea of learning the ropes and becoming a future factor.
“I’m not surprised Phillip got involved with Wingate’s football team,” said Scott Maddox, Hilliard’s high school baseball coach. “When he hurt his arm and came to the realization his pitching days were over, I think his competitive juices were strong as ever and football was a good way to satisfy them.
“Phillip was always a hard worker at whatever he did, and he always had a willingness to do things he didn’t have to do. I would go by the field with plans on working on the mound or something and Phillip would already be out there.”
That work ethic has paid off in Hilliard’s career switch.
He’s the starting punter now, although he had to shake off rust that accumulated from spending two years away from the football field.
Wingate head coach Joe Reich called Hilliard in recently to let him know he’d earned the job and would be getting scholarship money.
Hilliard said his distance is fine. Hang time, keeping the ball in the air long enough for the punt team to cover the kick, is what he’s trying to master. Most critical of all is being able to get punts away quickly enough that they aren’t blocked.
“Two years off and then 11/2 years to get back to here, but it’s coming along,” Hilliard said. “I’m getting a lot more hang time now and we’re getting punts off in two seconds, which is what we’re shooting for. I’ve got confidence now. I’ve given it my all, and punting is something I know I can do.”
It’s something he’ll be doing in a televised game on Sept. 24 when Wingate plays Tusculum.
It’s also something he could be doing next season. While Hilliard is a senior in the classroom, he’d still be eligible to go to grad school and play football in 2010.
“I’d come back in a heartbeat if they ask,” he said.