Andre Williams was being feted in New York as one of six Heisman Trophy finalists in December 2013 and Boston College running backs coach Al Washington attended the ceremony along with head coach Steve Addazio and a party of school officials.
They all watched proudly as Williams, the Doak Walker Award winner as the best running back in the nation, finished fourth in the balloting behind winner Jameis Winston, the freshman quarterback from Florida State.
Just before the Heisman was announced, Washington received news that BC had landed a verbal commitment from Jon Hilliman, a running back similar to Williams — big and bullish with a unique blend of speed and power.
He immediately was projected as Williams’s successor.
“I was in New York and I got a call and talked to him on the phone,’’ Washington recalled. “It started off a great night. Then after that, Andre and I went through the whole [Heisman] deal. It was a special night, for sure.’’
Hilliman, a 6-foot, 224-pound prospect from Plainfield, N.J., starred at St. Peter’s Prep, which also produced BC sophomore wide receiver Charlie Callinan and senior tight end Mike Giacone. Initially, Hilliman committed to Rutgers. But he changed his mind during the recruiting process and went with BC, where a huge void needed to be filled with Williams’s departure as the school’s all-time leading rusher with 3,739 yards.
“Initially, I think if you’re a young high school prospect and you see someone at your position have great success, at the level you want to play, you would look at that team,’’ Washington said. “You would say, ‘Wow, I wonder what I could do in that situation?’ I think it was a marriage of interests and the relationship we have, the coaching staff, was there. The school he came from had a lot of kids who have come to BC and so I think that played into it, too.
“It was just a natural fit.’’
Hilliman had that sense as well, even from his first phone conversation with Washington from New York.
“We had a talk about what was going to happen and how tough he was going to be on me, how he knew the player I could be and how he was going to hold me to that standard,’’ Hilliman said. “From that day forward, he’s been spot-on with it. He told me that things were going to be tough, but I just had to stay steady and continue to be the guy they pretty much recruited, and that’s pretty much what I knew I had to be.’’
Although he ranked second on the team in rushing last season behind quarterback Tyler Murphy (1,184 yards), Hilliman emerged as BC’s featured back. He competed against a talented trio in sophomores Myles Willis and Tyler Rouse and freshman Marcus Outlow.
Addazio now believes that his running backs corps is “one of the best in the ACC.’’
After setting a BC record for carries by a freshman with 210, for 860 yards and a team-leading 13 TDs, Hilliman is back to reprise his role as the workhorse of the group. He will be counted upon to move the pile this season, much in the same manner Williams did two seasons ago.
The only difference — and it’s a big one — is that Williams had a veteran offensive line blocking for him, while Hilliman will be running this season behind an offensive line that lost four starters.
“There have always been comparisons with people around and comparisons with guys who have been in the program,’’ said Hilliman of the comparisons with Williams, a fourth-round selection of the Giants in 2014.
“He had his style and I have mine, but I just wanted to work like he did,’’ Hilliman said. “I wanted to work exactly like he did and push exactly like he did and be attentive exactly like he was and be a leader exactly like he was.
“Those are the things I tried to take from the way he was.’’
While he noted the differences between the two, the similarities have not been lost on Washington.
“If you really look at it, they’re both big backs who have speed,’’ Washington said. “It’s kind of a unique quality where you either got it or you don’t.’’
Then there is the matter of moxie. From an early age, Hilliman was never lacking it, especially after proclaiming to his father, Dorrell, a noted high school track coach in New Jersey, that he was going to be a running back.
Hilliman’s father applauded his son’s decision, but warned it would put a target on his back. “He said if I wanted to play running back then I had better be the baddest guy on the field, no matter what,’’ Hilliman said.
That’s when Hilliman decided to adopt the attack-oriented running style of his favorite NFL player, Walter Payton.
“His theory was, ‘Live free, die hard,’ ’’ Hilliman said. “When you’re in the game, you run free and let the instincts take over. You have to understand the technique, understand the blocking schemes and all that. But once you make that first contact, you can’t let that first guy take you down.
“If someone’s going to take you down, they’re going to have to feel it. They got to think twice if they want to tackle you again. That’s really my style; attack them first, get there first before the defense gets there.’’
That approach seemed to serve Hilliman well in BC’s bowl game against Penn State. Although the Eagles suffered a 31-30 overtime loss in the Pinstripe Bowl in Yankee Stadium, Hilliman exacted a pound of flesh from Penn State’s defense, which entered as the nation’s top-ranked unit against the rush, allowing 84.8 yards per game.
Hilliman gashed the Nittany Lions for 148 yards on 25 carries, including a dazzling 49-yard touchdown run.
“Obviously, we lost the game, which [stunk], but I thought he took some strides,’’ Washington said. “Progressively, as the year went on, he got more and more comfortable with more and more carries.
“He did a good job against that defense. I know it was a big game. Penn State is a regional school for Jersey. I’m sure he knew a lot of guys. I think he’s just a competitor.’’
Washington knows there will be no drop-off from Hilliman as he enters his sophomore season, one in which he hopes to step out from Williams’s shadow.
“Jon did some special things last year as a freshman and had some big moments,’’ Washington said. “So, absolutely, if he continues to develop and continues to work on his fundamentals and continues to develop on his body, there’s no reason he can’t reach the standard that Andre set.’’