Hue Jackson's message to Jeremy Hill? Embrace the hype

CINCINNATI -- Hue Jackson's message to Jeremy Hill this offseason has been simple: Do believe the hype.

The Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator and his young protégé have found it difficult to avoid all the praise that has been heaped on Hill this spring and summer. A growing number of pundits and fantasy experts have started believing the running back will build upon his strong rookie season with a stronger sophomore campaign.

Need proof?

Look no further than ESPN's own Field Yates, who ranked Hill the fifth-best running back in the league entering this season. He placed Hill ahead of the likes of Marshawn Lynch and DeMarco Murray. Similarly, NFL.com's Chris Wesseling called Hill and the Bengals' offense "better than you think."

It's well-deserved praise. After all, Hill rushed for 1,124 yards, becoming only the 10th player in franchise history to collect more than 1,000 yards in a season. The bulk of his yards and carries came in the second half of the 2014 season following injuries to Giovani Bernard. Across the final nine weeks, no NFL back had more rushing yards than Hill.

So, do the Bengals shield Hill from the heightened expectations?

"You don't," Jackson said.

Jackson quickly pointed out how effusive the acclaim was for Bernard last offseason. Much like Hill this year, Jackson wanted Bernard to go into last season believing he could live up to the lofty goals others had for him.

"We can't run from it because they're going to say it," Jackson said. "Now you've got to go live up to it. There should be no pressure in that. All it is is to go out and work. To me, if a guy wants to be great, he's got to relish that. He's got to want that and then go exceed it.

"That would be my challenge to [Hill]. I expect him to exceed whatever the expectation is about him."

Ask Hill about those expectations, and he'll give a dramatically different answer. He's trying hard to avert his eyes from those touting him as one of the league's top up-and-coming stars.

"People bring it up to me every now and then but I try not to get distracted with it," Hill said, "because I know it can be taken away at any moment. I know, if you throw a couple of bad performances in there, it'll all get thrown out the window. So you really can't get caught up in all that. You've just got to come in here every day and do your job -- and it's a cliché, maybe -- but you've really got to do it. It's a cliché for a reason."

Part of what had Wesseling and others intrigued by the Bengals is the fact that Hill isn't alone in their backfield. Bernard had more than 1,000 combined receiving and rushing yards in both of his first two seasons. Along with him, Rex Burkhead is emerging as a viable alternate option as a runner/receiver.

If the Bengals get the type of production from Hill and Bernard that Jackson is anticipating, then the hype around the team's overall ground game may prove justified.

"The sky's the limit for him and Gio," Jackson said. "But they've got to go out and do it. They've got to do it on a consistent basis, week in and week out. It can't be about the plays that are called, the defenses that they're facing. You've got to make plays."