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Column: Saints’ Taysom Hill is a do-it-all quarterback still perfecting his game

Taysom Hill
Saints quarterback Taysom Hill, right, scrambles for yardage as Los Angeles Chargers inside linebacker Nick Dzubnar tries to tackle him in the fourth quarter.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

He’s listed as the third-string quarterback for the New Orleans Saints, but no simple label defines the do-it-all Taysom Hill.

His role is as complex as his agenda during a typical training camp practice, when he zigzags from position group to position group, throwing passes here, catching them there, variously lining up at quarterback, tight end and running back. For good measure, he’s right in the mix on the field goal-block team.

If he were a truck — and the third-year Hill looks like one at 6 feet 2, 225 pounds — he’d be a Mack of all trades.

“Taysom is a quarterback who happens to be an incredible athlete, and therefore his strength and his skill set and his smarts and his toughness can be used in other areas as well,” Saints quarterback Drew Brees said last week after a joint practice with the Chargers. “But I don’t think there are a lot of Taysom Hills out there.”

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Other teams are sure looking for one. Tampa Bay’s Nick Fitzgerald, Baltimore’s Trace McSorely, Kansas City’s John Lovett and the Chargers’ Easton Stick are among the rookies who played quarterback in college but are athletic and versatile enough to contribute in other areas.

But to this point, Hill is in a class by himself. The former BYU quarterback is as solidly built as Tim Tebow, but has a compact, NFL delivery on his passes, and is significantly faster. Hill’s blistering time in the 40-yard dash (4.44 seconds) was even faster than that of star Saints running back Alvin Kamara (4.53).

According to Saints Wire, Hill lined up in at least seven different positions last season, and his snaps in games broke down thus: quarterback (64 snaps), tight end (62), wide receiver (43), slot receiver (28), halfback/fullback (13), kickoff coverage/return (199), punt coverage/return (119), field goal block (69).

That’s an awfully full plate for someone who’s trying to learn to be an NFL quarterback.

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“Playing quarterback at this level is so demanding,” said Hill, 28, who signed with Green Bay as an undrafted free agent in 2017 before the Saints acquired him on waivers. “It’s really difficult to be able to give it all your time and attention, because that’s what it requires to be successful at that position. It’s not an easy thing to balance.”

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Hill wasn’t a bright blip on the New Orleans radar screen. Coach Sean Payton discovered him while doing a video evaluation of Green Bay receiver Max McCaffrey. The Packers were hoping they could put Hill on their practice squad and that the 24-hour waiver window would close before another team would claim him.

Because of their superior record, the Saints were 11th in line to claim Hill, but the other 10 teams ahead of them — including quarterback-needy Cleveland and Buffalo — passed on him.

It’s not as if Hill was a complete nobody. He was Idaho player of the year at Highland High in Pocatello and received offers from several schools, initially committing to Stanford to play for Jim Harbaugh. But instead of going straight to college, Hill decided to fulfill a two-year Mormon mission trip in Australia. Upon his return, he enrolled at BYU.

Hill was an outstanding player at BYU, a Heisman Trophy candidate in fact, but his fearless style cost him. Four of his five seasons ended in injuries, including a torn knee ligament, broken fibula, fractured foot and strained elbow.

“He’s relentless like few are,” said Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young, a former BYU star. “In college, he got hurt trying to do something that was just amazing. It’s really hard to tell somebody who’s an amazing athlete not to do something amazing. It’s super difficult.”

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Even now, surrounded by the best football players the world has to offer, Hill’s athleticism shines through. In the playoffs last year, the Saints were in a two-touchdown hole and backed deep into their own territory early in the second quarter. The game was slipping away. That was until Hill successfully executed a fake punt, taking a direct snap as the upback and charging ahead for a first down on fourth and one. That was the tide-turning play in the New Orleans victory.

Hill’s multiple abilities give the Saints plenty of room for creativity. On one play against Minnesota last season, New Orleans had three quarterbacks on the field at the same time, putting Hill in shotgun and bookending the formation with Brees and Teddy Bridgewater as decoy receivers. The Vikings weren’t fooled; Hill was stopped at the line on his run up the middle.

“I think what I’m doing for this team is ever-evolving, so I still don’t know what my role is going to be,” Hill said. “It certainly started at one thing last year, and evolved and grew into what it ended up being.”

Payton said Hill is showing signs of development as a quarterback, difficult as that is with his varied responsibilities and scant practice snaps.

“You see the progress,” the coach said. “You see the progressions. You see a more and more comfortable player, and that’s encouraging.”

Already, Hill is something of a cult hero among Saints fans. It used to be the only black-and-gold No. 7 jerseys in the crowd were in honor of Hall of Fame kicker Morten Andersen. Not anymore.

Bridgewater is a more polished and accomplished quarterback, but there’s no guarantee he’s the heir apparent to eventually replace the 40-year-old Brees. Hill is in that mix, too, and there’s always the possibility the Saints could go back to the draft to find one.

Young, who got to know Hill as a BYU alumnus, thinks at some point Hill will have an opportunity as a full-time NFL quarterback.

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“Taysom wants to play quarterback, and he doesn’t know — and no one knows — whether he can do that yet,” Young said. “But I think he’s going to get that chance. I think they’ll give him a shot at it. I wish they would just commit to him as the backup. It would be risky. I get it … I wish there were a way to make him co-backup so he gets more reps. Because I know that’s what he wants to do.”

Then again, Young feels he has a kindred spirit in Hill, 28, and not because they’re from the same school. Young ran for 4,239 yards in his NFL career, and, because he began in the USFL, got a similar delayed start to his NFL career.

“I’ll own that comparison, I’ll own it 100%,” Young said. “I hope to be like Taysom Hill someday.”


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