FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Brian Hill knows what it feels like to be discarded. He also understands the value of perseverance.
The Atlanta Falcons running back has been cut twice since entering the league in the 2017 draft, the year he declared himself the best running back in the class. Chosen in the fifth round out of Wyoming, Hill was first waived by the Falcons in October 2017. After spending time on Cincinnati's active roster for six games in 2017, Hill didn't make the final cut for the Bengals before the 2018 season despite averaging 5.1 yards per carry during the preseason.
Hill eventually worked his way back on the Falcons' active roster after starting 2018 on the practice squad.
"My roughest time? The first time I was cut ... actually, the second time I was cut because I told myself that it would never happen again," Hill said. "After that second time I was cut, it really hurt me. But my family was with me all the way, nothing but support. They gave me the confidence to keep going."
Hill was raised with four other siblings by a single mom, Tamara Scott, outside of St. Louis. He has a chance to do his family proud this Sunday, as the Falcons are preparing Hill to start against the Carolina Panthers with Devonta Freeman battling a foot sprain and Ito Smith placed on injured reserve with head and neck injuries. Hill was first up in the running back line during Wednesday's practice, and he's coming off a strong performance in a win over New Orleans, when he carried the ball 20 times for 61 yards and had a 10-yard touchdown reception.
"He had a good game and really stepped up and filled the void," Pro Bowl center Alex Mack said of Hill. "He's had a couple good times where his name has been called up unexpectedly in a game and he's delivered. That shows his work ethic and a guy that is paying attention, putting the work in. And it's paying off."
Mack mentioned how Hill has stepped up in several instances. One of those included last year's game in December at Carolina, when Hill stepped in alongside then-starter Tevin Coleman and rushed for a career-high 115 yards on just eight carries, including a 60-yard run.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera certainly is familiar with Hill's capabilities.
"I think he's a versatile running back, shows that he can run the ball," Rivera said. "He's got good vision, makes a good cut, sticks his foot in the ground and goes downhill. You're not going to arm-tackle him. You've got to wrap and drive. I think that this is a guy that just really has the potential to be a good football player for them and do things that they need."
What the Falcons need now is some consistency in the running game after a sluggish start to the season. They enter this week ranked 29th in the league in rushing, averaging just 76.8 yards per game. But last week's 34-rush, 143-yard effort was the best rushing performance of the season, sparked by Hill and Freeman before Freeman's injury. It also was the type of offensive balance coach Dan Quinn has sought, with 35 pass attempts by Matt Ryan to go with the 34 rushes.
The Falcons also plan to utilize ex-Panther Kenjon Barner in the running game, particularly as a receiver out of the backfield and perhaps again as a Wildcat quarterback. Rookie Qadree Ollison is preparing for his first carries of the season after being active on special teams last week.
On paper, it looks like the Falcons could have success running the ball against the Panthers. Carolina ranks dead last in the league in allowing 5.17 yards per rush and has given up a league-high 17 rushing touchdowns. The Panthers have tinkered with new defensive looks this season, incorporating more of a 3-4 look. Although the Panthers have been dominant rushing the passer, their issues against the run have drawn the wrath of Rivera.
When Hill looks at the Panthers' defense on paper, he sees one still led by one of the league's best linebackers, Luke Kuechly. Hill's not hanging his hat on what he accomplished last season in Charlotte.
"They have given up some explosive plays, so we can expect them to come in here and try and stop the run, like they should every week," Hill said. "And we're going to come out there and try and run against them, so it's going to be a good battle.
"Of course, Kuechly's the star of their defense. He calls out your plays before you do sometimes. So we've got to be ready to battle."