How Pitt Prepared Brandon Hill for the Opportunity to Make the Jump to the NFL
INDIANAPOLIS — Brandon Hill could’ve decided to come back to Pitt for another season, test himself against ACC wide receivers and prepare for the draft in 2024. But there was a pull from within he couldn’t ignore.
It felt like the right time to take what he’s learned at Pitt, about himself, about the game of football and about being a hard-nosed defensive back and test himself at the highest level possible.
“I felt like I was just ready for the opportunity to play the game at the highest level,” Hill said Thursday at the NFL Combine. “Excited for what this opportunity brings.”
He arrived as a young kid, a kid who chose safety at Wekiva High in Apopka, Florida because it allowed him to hit the field fastest, and he just watched. He may have played in four games as a freshman, retaining a redshirt, but he watched. He watched Paris Ford lay people out. He watched Damar Hamlin fly around the box.
Hill still does a lot of watching these days, studying players like Arizona’s Budda Baker and Los Angeles’ Derwin James, but he just watched those Pitt veterans — the same guys he’s now looking to emulate at the next level.
And while Hill was watching, he was also listening. He listened to the older guys, but he listened to secondary coach Archie Collins and safeties Cory Sanders most of all.
“When I came in early, they just harped on the playbook, and Pitt’s defensive playbook is one of the most complicated in college football,” Hill said. “So, just making sure I remember everything they’ve taught me, and they’ve been a great help to me.”
It’s a defensive scheme that head coach Pat Narduzzi swears by, walking a fine line by ensuring that stopping the run is the No. 1 priority. Pitt generates a lot of pressure, limiting opponents under 100 yards per game on the ground, but it leaves the secondary on their own islands.
It’s a tough system to play in, forced to play one-on-one on every defensive snap, but it’s also a system that prepares defensive backs for the NFL.
“It prepared me well because you can make a lot of checks, especially at the safety position at the University of Pittsburgh, so that’s also prepared me very well,” Hill said.
“I think that goes to coach Narduzzi and his coaching staff. They preach Pitt is a hard-nosed football team, and we just emphasize that. The DBs are the leaders of the defense and once they get everyone on the right page, Pitt is a hard defense to beat.”
But it’s also a system that will not work without extensive trust and communication among those in the secondary. Hill formed lasting bonds with Marquis Williams and M.J. Devonshire and the cornerbacks, but his partner was Erick Hallett.
Hallett, who wasn’t invited to the NFL Combine for some reason, formed one of the best safety duos in the ACC last season with Hill. One’s success in 2022 wouldn’t have been possible without the other.
“He’s a great player,” Hill said. “Just played alongside him my last two years at Pittsburgh, and he is a smart, intelligent player, quick and fast, instinctive. A great teammate to play with.
“I feel like we fed off each other well. We do play differently, but I feel like rapport and mixed well on the field. He knew where I was gonna be, and I knew where he was gonna be.”
That defensive cohesion with not just Hallett, Williams and Devonshire but the entire defense allowed him to break out as a key defensive back — and a candidate to continue the legacy of Pitt defensive backs in the NFL.
In four seasons at Pitt, he racked up 172 tackles (91 solo), three tackles for loss, three interceptions, 12 pass breakups, three forced fumbles, two recoveries and two defensive touchdowns.
Hill broke out as a star safety in 2021, earning All-ACC second-team honors for his efforts, racking up 71 tackles (38 solo), a tackle for loss, two interceptions, five pass breakups, a forced fumble and a recovery.
While his 2022 impact wasn’t as apparent (67 tackles, two pass breakups and a fumble returned for a touchdown), opposing quarterbacks didn’t throw Hill’s way in coverage as often. Over the last two seasons, Hill racked up 1,503 defensive snaps.
Pitt has helped Hill to make it this far, but now it’s time to showcase exactly what he learned while in school and the strides he’s taken since the end of the 2022 season toward being a professional athlete.
He wants to show NFL teams who he is, continuing to be himself during meetings and interviews while showing that he’s an explosive athlete in testing and drills. There isn’t one specific test that he’s focused on either; he wants to show out in all of them.
“(I want to show) that I’m ready,” Hill said. “I’ve been blessed with an amazing coaching staff, an amazing career at Pittsburgh, so just ready to take it in stride.”
Hill has had informal meetings with a number of NFL teams already this week, including the Texas, Cowboys and Buccaneers, and teams have lauded his physicality on the field — and told him to just keep being himself.