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Hill following in Dayne's footsteps

He has not met him or even spoken to him by telephone, but P.J. Hill has introduced -- or reintroduced -- the man to a host of college football fans this season.

Watching Hill, Wisconsin's 5-foot-11, 242-pound redshirt freshman tailback, is to step back seven years into the past when former Badgers jackhammer Ron Dayne was establishing the NCAA's career rushing record and winning the Heisman Trophy.

"My senior year [in college] was Ron's freshman year," said Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, who also played at Northwestern. "When I see the two of them, or think of the two of them, I see a lot of similarities. The sky's the limit for P.J., as it was for Ron."

Hill hears this sort of thing all the time. He appreciates it and knows it's well-intentioned, but he would rather be appreciated for the trend he's establishing, not the one he's following as the latest in a long line of distinguished Wisconsin ballcarriers.

"I don't like to be compared to other backs," Hill said. "Don't get me wrong, it's an honor to be compared to a back like Ron Dayne. But I just want to be P.J. I have my own style. I like to be patient and I like to be as physical as I can. I like to wait for my opening and then deliver the blow, not take them. That wears down a defense. Just keep hitting them and hitting them and hitting them. That changes their approach to how they play you."

Hill, like Dayne, doesn't look like a tailback.

But while Dayne looked like a nose guard, Hill only fits that bill below the waist.

From the belt line up, he's receiver or cornerback lean, to the point where his teammates' barbs most often center on his unique body style.

"It shocks a lot of people that I move the way I move," Hill said.

The secret certainly should be out by now, given his rushing totals of 100 yards or more and at least one rushing touchdown in every Wisconsin game but one this season.

The exception was the Badgers' 27-13 loss at Michigan, the nation's No. 1-rated rushing defense.

But even on that day, Hill ran for 54 yards and caught five passes for 64 yards and one score.

As Wisconsin heads for a road game at Purdue, Hill leads the Big Ten in rushing and is fifth nationally with a per-game average of 144.4 yards per-game. He has also rushed for 11 touchdowns.

That puts him on pace for 1,877 yards and 20 touchdowns this season, or close to the numbers the 5-10, 252-pound Dayne put up his freshman year (2,109, 20 TDs).

"I can understand the comparisons," Minnesota coach Glen Mason said. "If he develops, he's going to be the same type of back Ron Dayne was."

Dayne came to cheese country from Berlin, N.J., while Hill found his way to Wisconsin from nearby East Elmhurst, N.Y.

Hill's prep numbers were predictably outstanding, but his 4.6 time in the 40-yard dash turned off people at Indiana, Notre Dame, Purdue, Ohio State, Boston College and Maryland (the tour was organized by his high school coach).

"I was going to go to Syracuse, but then their coaching situation got messed up," Hill said of the firing of Paul Pasqualoni. "Then I thought about Indiana, but Wisconsin came through near the end and offered me a spot. I was pretty fortunate to have Wisconsin."

First-year head coach Bret Bielema thinks Hill might have that scenario backwards.

"I just like his attitude," Bielema said. "Everyone thinks I have to keep him humble. P.J. keeps himself humble. As he goes through practice every day, he has only one goal, and that's to get better than he was the day before."

Hill takes that approach because he didn't get much chance to improve last year. On the second day of fall camp, a teammate fell on his leg and the resultant broken bone sidelined him for the season.

"The day before I broke my leg, the coaches told me I was going to be the No. 2 tailback," Hill said. "I was pretty upset, but I looked at it like, it was better to have that happen when I was young than when I was older. I think I ended up getting something out of it in the end. I realized, you have to be strong mentally and physically to succeed at this level."

The physical part isn't a problem for the rock-solid Hill, but the nuances still elude him sometimes.

Both Bielema and offensive coordinator Paul Chryst acknowledge Hill has left some yardage on the field that could have been reaped by better decision making.

That problem, though, appears to be diminishing, given Hill's totals of 129 yards against Indiana, 249 against Northwestern and 165 against Minnesota since being held in check at Michigan.

"Every game, I feel like I'm getting better at reading things," Hill said. "I know the coaches have seen those things, and I've seen them, too. I'm working to read my blocks better so I get the most out of what my linemen are doing for me."

Might that bring Hill even closer to the pace Dayne set his first year?

"I'm all about winning, not about stats," Hill said. "I don't like to look at the numbers. I have quite a bit of season left. Let's play the games and see where it winds up."

Bruce Hooley covered the Big Ten for 19 years and now is host of a daily talk show on WBNS-AM 1460 in Columbus, Ohio.