All Perry Hills wanted was a chance at Maryland's starting quarterback job.
Maybe it was a callback to his days as a Pennsylvania state champion wrestler at Central Catholic in Pittsburgh. Or maybe it reminded him that he had competed for and won the Terps' starting quarterback job once before.
So when Maryland coach Randy Edsall told Hills that it would be an open battle for the starting job in August with Caleb Rowe and Daxx Garman, the redshirt junior said he was "ecstatic." The only thing he wanted was a chance to show he could do the job.
"When Coach announced it would be a three-man competition, I was happy right then and there," Hills said last week. "That's all I really want to do is have an opportunity to compete and at the end of the day, if I wasn't the guy, then so be it. I was just happy I got the opportunity to compete."
When Hills stepped under center in Maryland's season opener against Richmond on Saturday, it was the culmination of a summer of grueling work and a rededicated focus to his craft. The results in the Terps' 50-21 victory over the Spiders were mixed in Hills' first start in almost three years, but it also marked a complete return.
Hills tore his anterior cruciate ligament seven games into his freshman season. He watched from the sideline the next season. He entered last season as Maryland's third-string quarterback and was seen as an afterthought behind Rowe and Garman by many outside the program this fall.
Now, he's trying to lead Maryland to its third straight winning season.
"He's worked his butt off to get back out here and be the best player he can be," offensive lineman Ryan Doyle said in August. "He's in the playbook constantly. And he's been there before. I have a lot of confidence in his abilities. So does he."
The routine started in May and lasted until right before Maryland began preseason camp in August. Every weekend, Hills got in his car and left College Park to head back to Pittsburgh, taking I-495 to I-270 up to I-70 and then to the Pennsylvania Turnpike until he was home.
After spring practice, Hills called Tony Colaizzi, his quarterbacks coach at Central Catholic, and asked him to help him over the summer. He told Colaizzi what Maryland's coaching staff had told him he needed to work on, and the pair spent every weekend on the field at Central Catholic, Plum High School, in Hills' neighborhood, or Steel Valley High School, where Colaizzi coached former NFL quarterback Charlie Batch in the early 1990s.
"When we first discussed our plan, I said I want them to say, 'Who is this guy? This isn't the same kid. This kid's becoming an athlete,'" Colaizzi said.
So Colaizzi and Hills went to work, using agility exercises to help Hills improve his speed. Colaizzi focused on improving Hills' burst in the backfield and his ability to pull away from chasing defenders in five- or six-yard spurts. The pair also worked on Hills' hand-eye coordination using drills where Colaizzi would hold out a lacrosse ball in each hand and not tell Hills which one he was about to drop.
Hills was supposed to snatch it out of the air with a determined hand.
"He got pretty darnn good at it because he wasn't able to do it at the beginning of the summer," Colaizzi said. "When you combine a lot of those things, I think what we're trying to achieve was for him to become more athletic, a little bit more reactive and faster. Hopefully we achieved it and it seems like they've taken notice."
By the time summer ended and Hills was set to be in College Park full time for preseason camp, Colaizzi could see the improvements Hills had made across the board in his athleticism and decision-making. He had put in the hard work, and Colaizzi started to bring eighth- and ninth-graders to his sessions with Hills so younger players could see the results of Hills' work.
And, soon, it was time for Hills to put what he had worked on into action.
"[Colaizzi is] someone that I really trusted," Hills said. "I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for him. … I really, really give him a lot of credit for me being here right now."
Almost immediately, the Terps could tell there was something different about Hills. He asserted himself at the line of scrimmage and pushed the offense to get the better of the defense. There was a confidence about him. He asked the coaching staff to make him "live" during the team's first open scrimmage, exchanging his yellow No. 11 jersey for a white one and making himself a target for the defense.
"He came into this camp honed in on he wanted to be the starting quarterback," wide receiver Levern Jacobs said. "He was kind of focused. He was kind of focused going into this camp knowing he wanted to be the starting quarterback and that's how I think he kind of attacked the situation with the three-way battle. He separated himself."
On the outside, Hills appeared to be the odd-man out in the Maryland quarterback race. He was the third-stringer behind the graduated C.J. Brown and Rowe a year ago, and when Garman transferred in from Oklahoma State, it gave the Terps another experienced option with success in major college football.
But Hills carried himself with confidence and knew his singular goal.
Jacobs said Hills "just outworked the rest of the guys."
Middle linebacker Jermaine Carter Jr. said he saw "a different Perry" across the line of scrimmage barking out play calls during practice.
Hills took most of the first-team reps at Maryland's open scrimmage Aug. 22. On his first drive, he took the Terps 75 yards down the field and connected with Jacobs on a touchdown pass. He made it look easy, and the rest of his teammates took notice. Less than a week later, Maryland announced he was the Week 1 starter.
"At the end of the day, Perry was the most consistent guy," offensive coordinator Mike Locksley said. "He took care of the ball the best. He was the most productive. And to be quite honest, he was the guy we felt won the team, won the offense. They seemed to play better when he was behind the center for us and so he's going to be given the opportunity to be the guy."
'Through the wringer'
Hills' first pass attempt Saturday was dropped by wide receiver Amba Etta-Tawo. He underthrew his second and hit a Richmond player in the helmet while trying to get to fullback Kenneth Goins Jr. in the end zone. He overthrew wide receiver Malcolm Culmer with his third pass. And on his fourth, Spiders defensive back David Jones intercepted a pass intended for Jacobs.
It was a rocky start for Hills, who finished 12 of 21 for 138 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. Eventually, he settled into a rhythm and hit Culmer for a 37-yard touchdown pass shortly before halftime.
"He's just got to go out there and throw the ball," Edsall said after Maryland's win. "Don't aim it. He's got to hit those open guys. He's got to be more decisive with his decisions. There were some decisions he wasn't decisive with and that caused him to kind of pull the string a little bit. That's what he's got to do. You can't go out there and worry, 'Am I perfect?' You've got to go out there and play."
Edsall said he thought Hills managed the game "pretty well" and complimented his ability to spread the ball around to hit eight different Maryland receivers in the game. Hills said he needs to "just throw the ball like I know how to do" with the Terps set to host Bowling Green on Saturday.
Coming back from the shaky performance against Richmond would be nothing new for Hills. He came back from the torn ACL on Oct. 20, 2012 in his freshman year. He took control of the starting quarterback job in August when few outside the program expected him to.
"He's been through the wringer," Central Catholic coach Terry Totten said. "He's older, more mature now. He's fought through adversity, both physical and mental. He's ready to lead a big-time football program again."
Hills dedicated himself to improvement over the summer and asserted himself in Maryland's huddle in August. The coaching staff has been impressed by his intangibles and mindset stemming from his time as a wrestler. He's proved people wrong before, and he seems to be in the process of doing it again.
"I think people never thought he had a chance to be the quarterback," Edsall said. "It's a great thing about sport. It's a great thing about life ... don't believe what other people say. You go out and control what you can control. And all Perry did was go out and work very, very hard through the spring and then over the summer, and he knew there was a competition.