JEFFERSON — In a perfect world, Jefferson head coach Ben Hall would like to limit how much senior Dalton Hill drops back to punt. But Hall knows that when Hill does get his hands on the football, he’s capable of dramatically shifting field position.
Hill is in the final year of a three-year transformation that has taken him from part-time cornerback to receiver to punter with the Dragons, a journey that’s given him a finer appreciation of the game he loves.
But don’t think he can’t still line up and fight for quarterback Evan Shirreffs’ long bomb passes down the sideline this year. The 6-foot-1 receiver recently finished his first season of high school track in a bid to get even faster on offense.
“It’s about doing what’s best for the team,” Hill said after practice on Tuesday. “We have plays that can get me open. I know I’ve got good hands, to be able to snag balls out of the air, and that helps.”
Hill showed his offensive prowess last Friday, picking up 149 receiving yards and a touchdown on just four catches and adding rushing score in a 50-14 rout of visiting Rabun County.
For the short term, Hill will be more than happy to use every bit of his 39-inch vertical to keep No. 5 Jefferson in the playoff hunt this season as it enters its first year in Class AAA.
But by the time he graduates next spring, he’s hoping to earn a place at the collegiate level through his punting abilities. Hill had a booming 61-yard kick last week that landed inside the opponent’s 1-yard line. Jefferson stopped the Wildcats in their own end zone for a safety on the next play.
“I hope he doesn’t get too many opportunities to punt the ball,” Hall said. “But he’s focused on being the best Jefferson Dragon he can be right now. He’s a go-to guy for us. He’s a kid we’ve seen grow and mature over the last four years and is definitely one of the best athletes on the team. Watching him grow has been something great to watch.”
Ever since his sophomore year, Hill has had to shift his play to help his team. He had to adjust to catching passes from fellow receiver TJ Skelton in 2013 after Skelton had to take over from Shirreffs after the quarterback went down with a hand injury.
Despite being listed as an offensive specialist, he’s occasionally had to work on defense when the depth chart got low. Hill briefly spent time on special teams as a placeholder.
That’s where he met former Dragons punter and best friend Chandler Schlutow. Before Schlutow graduated, he used his spare weekends to teach Hill the finer points of punting.
“We had a bond,” Hill said. “We started hanging out and he still helps me kick every now and then.”
Hill was averaging 40-45 yards per punt last year, according to wide receivers coach Brian Moore. Moore said Hill has been working on increasing his leg strength, as well as understanding when the best times are to make a pooch kick or switch the field to give returners a tough time. Moore has watched his “versatile” receiver grow into a threat on both sides of the ball, a situation that Jefferson can rely on if the offense isn’t clicking.
“(The way) we look at it on punt team is that it‘s the first play on defense,” Moore said. “We want to pin the other team back within their own 10-yard line, and we take a lot of pride in that and in Dalton, who can help us with that.”
As much as Hill wants to impress college scouts with his leg, he knows it’ll be a lot more fun to let his receptions help Jefferson remain a state championship contender. The Dragons won the Class AA state title in 2012.
The senior said he expects many of the new Region 8-AAA opponents on Jefferson’s schedule to be skeptical of the Dragons in their first year in the new classification. There’s nothing that would make him happier than to prove them all wrong.
“It’s our time to show everyone what this senior class is made of,” Hill said. “We’ve got to show these new schools, who are probably looking down at us, that we can open up some eyes and beat them.
“We showed we’re not some underdog (against Rabun County). We came out with intensity and put numbers up on the board. I’ll be mad if we can’t convert a first down, but I love punting. I’m not scared.”