MSU's Nick Hill hopes to stand tall in fall

Michigan State's Nick Hill has dealt with the labels for years.

Too small. Scat back. Not every-down material. The fact he's trying to replace one of the biggest, baddest and most productive backs in the country, Le'Veon Bell, certainly doesn't make the size questions go away.

"I've been hearing that for a long time," Hill told ESPN.com earlier this week. "I think that's making me a better player, people saying that me being small, I might not be an every-down back. I look at it as a challenge."

The 5-foot-8 Hill knows he's not Bell, who has 6 inches and about 40 pounds on him. Bell logged more carries (382) than any FBS back in 2012, rushing for 1,793 yards and 12 touchdowns. He eclipsed 25 carries nine times and surpassed 30 carries seven times, doing so in each of Michigan State's last four games. Not surprisingly, Bell opted to skip his final season in East Lansing and enter the NFL draft.

The epitome of a power back, Bell racked up 922 rush yards after contact, the most in the FBS. Hill, who backed up Bell along with Larry Caper but had just 21 rushes for 48 yards and a touchdown, admits it wasn't easy to get on the field.

"They put me in some different packages here and there like jet sweeps," Hill said, "or if [Bell] came out, I went in. He was the best back we had, so it was tough, but I competed every day."

Hill is competing these days for the top running back spot. He opened the spring as the starter and has been sharing first-team reps with Jeremy Langford through the first few practices. Nick Tompkins also is in the mix, and the race likely will spill into preseason camp, as three freshmen arrive on campus.

"I look at it as competition, guys looking to be the best we can be," Hill said. "At the same time, I'm No. 1 on the chart."

Hill's speed has never been an issue -- he has been MSU's primary kick returner the past two seasons and also returned 13 punts -- but he made power a priority in the offseason, mindful of the increased carries load he hopes to have. He put on 10 pounds, checking in at around 195.

Michigan State strength coach Ken Mannie and Hill put together a power plan for Hill's winter workouts. The results: Hill increased his squat to 615 pounds and his bench press to 420.

"By me gaining more muscle and more power in my legs, and more weight," Hill said, "it will allow me to drive through the linebackers and through the hole."

While some view Hill's size as a disadvantage -- Hill thinks it turned off some teams during his college recruitment -- the Spartans junior thinks it can give him an edge, even in a league like the Big Ten. In fact, some of Michigan State's defenders have told him they struggle to locate him after he takes the handoff.

"Offensive linemen are about 6-4, 6-5, 6-6, and I'm 5-8," he said, "so hiding behind them and using my speed and my quickness to make cuts, they have a hard time [finding me].

"And by that time, I'm already at the next level."

Michigan State has a history of big backs, from Lorenzo White in the 1980s to more recently T.J. Duckett, Jehuu Caulcrick and Bell. But Javon Ringer also starred as a featured back for the Spartans despite his 5-9, 202-pound frame. Ringer led the nation in carries (390) in 2008 and earned All-America honors.

Hill occasionally exchanges text messages with Ringer, who has told him: When people on defense underestimate you, make ‘em pay.

Spartans head coach Mark Dantonio described Hill as "confident" so far this spring. But there's still a lot to prove, as Hill needs to show speed, power, shiftiness, durability and ball security, which has been a bit of an issue for him on returns.

"I can do a lot of things Le'Veon can do," Hill said. "The difference is, obviously, he's 6-2 and I'm 5-8. But other than that, I think I can bring a lot of good qualities to the table with my speed, pass pro, catching the ball out of the backfield and helping the team win."