WINCHESTER – Shenandoah University senior safety Nate Hill has made such a habit of hunting down footballs thrown over the middle of the field and plucking them out of the air that head coach Scott Yoder has come to call the feat “Nate Hill doing what Nate Hill does.”
Hill hauls in interceptions so frequently, in fact, that the magnitude of his first-quarter interception in Shenandoah’s season-opening win over North Carolina Wesleyan on Sept. 14 went largely overlooked by SU’s staff.
The interception was the 12th in Hill’s career, making him the school’s all-time record holder.
It would be easy to take for granted Hill’s ability to thwart opposing teams’ attempts at challenging Shenandoah down the middle of the field, given how long he’s been doing so at a high level. But the Hornets were very nearly without the senior’s services in 2019.
Hill, who joined Shenandoah in 2015, missed what would’ve been his sophomore season in 2016 with a torn hamstring. Long before the 2019 season, Hill said, he and Shenandoah applied for a medical hardship waiver, which would grant Hill an extra year of eligibility and allow him to play this season.
As the days came and went this preseason, however, Hill still had not been granted the waiver by the NCAA. Speaking on Aug. 25, less than two weeks before Shenandoah’s Sept. 7 opener against Methodist (which was ultimately postponed due to Hurricane Dorian), defensive coordinator Brock McCullough said he wasn’t confident Hill would get the news he wanted to hear in time for the season opener.
Finally, on Aug. 29, Hill learned that he would indeed be granted the waiver and would be able to play one final season at Shenandoah in 2019. On Wednesday afternoon, Hill said there was a real fear that he wouldn’t be on the field with the Hornets this fall.
“To be honest with you, yes, because at first it got denied and it got accepted the second time going through,” Hill said of his application. “I came to one practice. It was kind of hard just to see like I might not be playing this season. But I would always keep in contact with the coaches; they always kept telling me to keep my head up, saying everything’s gonna be all right so it was a great support system from them.”
Hill wasted no time doing what he does best when Shenandoah finally started the 2019 season with a road trip to N.C. Wesleyan. On the Bishops’ fourth offensive snap to start their second drive of the game, Hill picked off a Donielle Totten pass to kick off a day that would end with five Shenandoah interceptions – also a school record – in a 35-19 win.
Hill’s 12th interception surpassed the 11 that Dionte Beatty tallied from 2005-08 but he shrugged off the achievement on Wednesday.
“I didn’t really have my eye on it,” said Hill, who also holds two of the school’s highest single-season interception totals in SU history. “I just go out and play each week. It’s not really ‘Oh, I want to get some records on my belt.’ I mean, it’s great to know, but I’d rather have a team goal. Getting a ring is a really big deal to me. The records don’t really matter, as long as we come out and we get a ring at the end of the season.”
Hill spoke in a similar tone when describing how he seems to always find himself in a position to grab an interception. While he said a lot of it is the result of hustle on his part, Hill said many of his interceptions come off of deflections by his fellow defensive backs. Hill just simply has to make sure he’s in the vicinity once the ball leaves the quarterback’s hands.
Though Hill downplays a lot of his ability and status as a defensive playmaker, Shenandoah’s coaches know they have something special.
Yoder said Hill, who hails from Gaithersburg, Maryland, and attended Quince Orchard High School, came to Shenandoah with a gift for playing the football in the air, noting that the 6-foot, 195-pound senior is comfortable and smooth in such situations where many other defensive backs are not.
McCullough agreed that Hill, who also played some receiver in high school, has natural ball skills that often can’t be taught, even to some of the best defensive backs at the highest levels of the sport.
“If the ball’s in the air, he goes and gets it,” McCullough said. “He does some punt returning for us, too, because he’s a good guy at reading balls in the air where I’ll be honest, it’s a little bit less common. Not everybody has that. That’s why he’s our all-time leading interception guy because we’ve had faster guys, we’ve had guys that maybe can do things he can’t, but when the ball’s in the air, he has great ball skills. He tracks it well. He takes great angles. He does catch it well, so he has great hands, eye-hand coordination and everything. It is, it’s something you work on but not everybody has it.”
Hill showed that innate ability quickly at SU, tallying six interceptions and seven pass breakups in 2017, his first season of varsity action for Shenandoah. He added five more picks last season.
Yoder credited Shenandoah’s defensive staff with putting Hill in a position that maximizes his talents.
“He is a heady football player,” Yoder said. “I think he understands the game, which a lot of people say but I think he can sit back there and understand concepts and know here’s a good chance where the ball’s going and be able to use that information, to have really efficient footwork.
“Nate kind of brings that ball-hawk offensive mentality that ‘That ball’s in the air, it’s mine.’ I always kind of just laugh to myself because it’s always one of those situations where the ball goes up and Nate Hill comes out of nowhere and makes a pick. After doing it like 15 times, it’s like ‘OK, this is what Nate Hill does.’”
In Shenandoah’s defensive structure, McCullough said Hill is in charge of patrolling the middle of the field between the hash marks, and Hill said he never takes his eyes off the quarterback.
The Hornets have proved susceptible to the big play – they have allowed 38 plays of 10 yards or more through two games this season – but rarely are opposing offenses taking the top off of SU’s defense down the middle of the field (an exception was N.C. Wesleyan’s 82-yard touchdown pass two weeks ago, when McCullough said the Hornets strayed from their identity and went Cover 2, leaving the middle of the field open).
Those big plays, McCullough said, are more often than not the result of a play getting to the edge of Shenandoah’s defense or of an offense exploiting holes in the Hornets’ coverage outside of the hash marks.
“It’s a bounced run where it gets to the numbers and then they outrun us, or it’s a shallow throw where they outrun us. Usually, it’s not a big-play shot down the middle of the field,” McCullough said. “We’re eliminating that with our structure and having a good player like that.”
Against Guilford today, McCullough said, Shenandoah will square off with an offense that likes to push the ball down the field. Hill has thrived against the Quakers in past matchups, as he recorded an interception in the teams’ 2017 matchup and picked off Guilford quarterback Alex Manley twice last season.
“We’re gonna need him to make a lot of plays,” Yoder said, “not just this Saturday but moving forward.”
Hill hopes the future holds in store for Shenandoah its first Old Dominion Athletic Conference championship, a task that already has gotten tougher with last week’s loss to Bridgewater in the ODAC opener.
“I want to leave with a ring, there’s no other ifs, ands or buts,” Hill said. “I know we just had a big loss but we’ve got to put that in the past, come out and just finish the goal that we want, game by game.”