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Up-Hill Battle


In college football circles, Pat Hill's name is widely recognized as one who is able to get the most out of his players. Spending 15 years as a head coach at the same school will definitely have that kind of effect.

Hill, who was hired by the Falcons last week to become the new offensive line coach under new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, has plenty of respect around the league and was a hot commodity after he was let go by Fresno State, where he led the Bulldogs to a 112-80 record in his 15 seasons, including a share of the WAC title in 1999 and 11 bowl appearances.

Now with the Falcons, Hill gets right back to where he was before Fresno State — coaching in the NFL. Hill was an offensive line and tight ends coach with the Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens in the early and mid 1990s, a product of the Bill Belichick tree of coaching that tends to be sought after around the league when new hires are made.

With the Falcons, Hill will have plenty to work with and some issues to solve as he gets to work on the 2012 offensive line. The Falcons struggled at the start of the season with an offensive line that ended up seeing a lot of changes as the season wore on. Quarterback Matt Ryan was hit too often in the first quarter of the season and the Falcons coaching staff seemed to fix the problem as Ryan became much more protected in the pocket as the line found a groove.

With veterans Tyson Clabo and Justin Blalock re-signing before last season to lengthy contracts, there's a solid nucleus to work with. The other positions of the line present a bit more instability.

Right guard seemed to be in constant flux last season as Garrett Reynolds began the season there and Joe Hawley finished the year at the spot. Second-year guard Mike Johnson was in the mix, as well, but his season was cut short by a foot injury. Even tackle Sam Baker spent a few snaps at the position as the Falcons experimented with finding stability at the position.

At left tackle, Hill could have a diamond in the rough in Will Svitek, who filled in admirably when Baker went down with a back injury at the midseason point. Longtime center Todd McClure is slated to be a free agent in March, so the middle of the line is another unclear position.

But from all indication from Hill's former players at Fresno State, if there's anyone who can figure things out, it's Hill. A seventh-round selection in 2011's NFL Draft, offensive lineman Andrew Jackson came right out of Fresno State's program with Hill and had plenty of glowing things to tell the Fresno Bee last week.

"After being with Coach Hill for five years, I've bought into his system and how he works and operates. I really enjoyed it while I was in Fresno and look forward to it out here," Jackson told the Fresno Bee. "I didn't know what he wanted to do after things went down in Fresno. But he's such a passionate guy about football. I think it's awesome he's back in the NFL, and the icing on the cake is he's here where I am."

The history between Hill and Jackson could prove to help shore up the instability on the line. Jackson spent 2011 on the practice squad after a training camp and preseason that was consistent and impressive for a seventh-round pick. Jackson spent much of his final year at Fresno State with an ankle injury, which many believe hurt his draft stock. In turn, the opinion last April was that Jackson was a steal for the Falcons when they selected him 210th overall.

Hill clearly has the ability to get the most out of the linemen he coaches, if his past is any indication. Along with Jackson, Hill coached New England's Logan Mankins and Ryan Wendell, who will be playing in this weekend's Super Bowl. In addition, Hill could boast at least one offensive lineman earning first-team All-Western Athletic Conference honors in each of the past eight seasons.

His credentials could suggest a strong development of the younger offensive linemen on the roster who have yet to hit their stride in the league.

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