EAGAN, Minn. — When Holton Hill arrived in Minnesota, he was instantly a source of intrigue because of his size and playmaking ability at Texas. The question for the undrafted free agent signing was how well he could acclimate to the NFL after being suspended as a Longhorn and passed over in the draft because of off-field concerns.
As we enter Week 17, Hill is now one of the reasons that the Vikings have survived injuries to Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes and a season-ending ACL tear for Mike Hughes and remained one of the league’s best passing defenses. He has played a total of 311 snaps and allowed just 12 catches on 26 throws in his direction. Opposing QBs have a 57.9 rating throwing his way this year, according to Pro Football Focus stats.
The 21-year-old credits a close relationship with Pro Bowl corner Xavier Rhodes for his quick adaptation to the NFL. In training camp, Rhodes worked with Hill during and after practice on a daily basis.
“Me and Xavier’s relationship started off pretty good as far as him taking the time away from himself to help me with my craft and my technique and getting the defense down,” Hill said on Friday. “Obviously it was an adjustment for me when I first got here and he helped me from the jump and helped me get the ball rolling for where I’m at today.”
Hill was the No. 1 rated UDFA by ESPN last season. He signed with the Vikings because he felt there would be opportunity to simply make the team. As the last DB on the depth chart, it didn’t appear from the start that he would end up filling a key role in Year 1.
The rookie’s status on the depth chart didn’t matter to Rhodes, who helped Hill adjust to the way the Vikings want corners to play and to the finer details required to play at the highest level. As the season has gone along, they have developed a close friendship. On Thursday, Rhodes, who was not practicing, spent warmups right by Hill’s side.
“Our relationship has gotten closer and closer as the weeks and months have gone by and I really appreciate him for everything as far as him looking out [for me],” Hill said. “He could have had the mindset like ‘I’m already starting, I’ve established myself, I’m going to focus on myself.’ Taking that extra step, going that extra mile to look out for somebody else, I really appreciate him for that.”
Being a bigger corner comes along with its challenges. Both Rhodes and fellow starter Trae Waynes took three seasons before it appeared they were fully comfortable with the spot. Hill said that Rhodes has emphasized to him different ways to use his 6-foot-3 frame.
“Knowing when to use our size to our advantage, what wide receivers don’t like about facing a big, versatile corner, things like when to shoot your hands, when to be aggressive,” Hill said.
Rhodes is listed as questionable for this week’s win-and-in matchup with the Chicago Bears. If the Pro Bowler can’t play or isn’t at full strength, we will see Hill in his place. It’s been a common theme with Mike Zimmer’s defense to have veterans teaching younger players because you never know when it will pay off.
“To have Xavier to lead the way, that’s something everyone wishes they had when they come in here as a rookie, to show them the ropes,” Hill said. “You want a Pro Bowl player like that, a great corner to see how they prepare, how they go about their routine day by day. I kind of had the privlidge to witness that and it’s helped me.”