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Journey of Rams cornerback Troy Hill brings him back to Southland

Journey of Rams cornerback Troy Hill brings him back to Southland
Rams cornerback Troy Hill tries to break up a deep pass to Seahawks receiver Tyler Lockett during their game last month. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

He was exactly where he wanted to be, on the field at the Coliseum and working to help shut down Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson.

Rams cornerback Troy Hill, however, could barely catch his breath. He was gasping for air.

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It was not a case of nervousness.  The second-year pro was simply running out of gas.

"I didn't play that many snaps since college," Hill said this week, chuckling.

Hill's role has grown substantially since playing on special teams and relieving since-released Coty Sensabaugh during that Week 2 victory over the Seahawks.

He started two games opposite franchise cornerback Trumaine Johnson while the Rams waited for E.J. Gaines to work through a thigh injury.

With Johnson now sidelined indefinitely because of an ankle injury, Hill will start in his place Sunday against the Detroit Lions, who feature quarterback Matthew Stafford and receiver Marvin Jones.

"He's getting better every week," safety T.J. McDonald said. "It's not easy for a young corner to come into the league. He competes."

The Rams signed the 5-foot-11, 182-pound Hill near the end of last season, after he played a few games for the Cincinnati Bengals and completed an abbreviated stint with the New England Patriots.

It did not take Hill long to pick up concepts preached by Rams defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, cornerback Lamarcus Joyner said.

"He's a guy that does everything right," Joyner said. "I actually go to Troy and ask him what I'm doing wrong, that I should be doing right, because he does his job."

Hill, 25, said he has "kind of come full circle" after playing at Ventura St. Bonaventure High on his way to playing for the Rams, who train at Cal Lutheran in Ventura County.

But Hill is a California transplant.

He grew up in Youngstown, Ohio, where he said he was often on the road to trouble before his mother decided to send him to California to live with an uncle. Hill was all for it until he realized it was not for a visit.

"I stayed out all night and missed the plane on purpose," he said, shaking his head.

His uncle, Jim Gilmer,  eventually traveled to Ohio to retrieve him. He took Hill into his family's home in Oxnard and enrolled him at St. Bonaventure.

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"On the plane ride here," Gilmer said. "I told him about opportunity and hope."

Hill, however, initially struggled with the new environment, school and expectations.

"I was calling my mom and saying, 'Let me come home,'" Hill said. "She was like, 'Well, you better start walking.'"

Hill settled in with help from Gilmer and other families in the St. Bonaventure community, and developed into a top cornerback prospect for the Seraphs.

He chose to attend Oregon over offers from Arizona and Washington, but his arrival in Eugene was delayed because the NCAA determined that his eligibility clock had started during his first year of high school in Ohio.

At Oregon, Hill played a few seasons on special teams and as a reserve cornerback in a secondary that included cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu. He was suspended for about a month and half after the 2013 regular season before pleading guilty to a misdemeanor count of menacing for an incident that reportedly involved a girlfriend.

As he waited for the situation to be resolved, Hill said he contemplated his future.

"It made my vision a lot more clear," he said, "to focus on school and graduate."

Hill played well his senior season but went undrafted in 2015. He signed with the Bengals and made the practice squad. Every day in workouts, he went against receivers such as Jones and A.J. Green.

"It helped me out to see I can really play in this league," he said.

The Bengals activated Hill in Week 13 and he played in three games. He was waived when veteran cornerback Chris Lewis-Harris returned, and he figured he would return to the practice squad. But the Patriots claimed him.

"I got the call on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day," Hill said. "I'm like, 'New England, yeah.'"

Hill never played with the Patriots. The incident at Oregon, Hill said he was told, led to the Patriots  waiving him five days later. He returned to Cincinnati to retrieve his belongings and hoped to rejoin the Bengals' practice squad.

But Bengals Coach Marvin Lewis texted congratulations.

"I'm like, 'Huh? What happened?'" Hill said. "He texted back, 'The Rams picked you up.'

"At first, I was like, 'Can I just stay?' Because I don't want to go through that again — go out there and be cut again."

Hill joined the St. Louis Rams for the final game of the season but was inactive at San Francisco. In January, the NFL approved the Rams' move from St. Louis to Los Angeles, bringing Hill back to Southern California.

"I kind of felt, 'Dang, this is a journey,'" Hill said.

It continues Sunday when Hill will try to utilize lessons learned through the first five weeks of the season.

He was in game shape by his first start — against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers — and has made 19 tackles.

Hill's speed and "ball skills" make him a good complement to Gaines, Rams Coach Jeff Fisher said.

"They might be 5-10, 5-11," Fisher said, "but they can play taller because they can elevate and get the ball."

Hill still is looking for his first interception. But his goal Sunday is to simply play with confidence.

And stamina.

"I have to go out there," he said, "like I'm meant for this."

Twitter: @LATimesklein

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