Deacon Hill’s winding road takes him back to Wisconsin as Iowa’s starting QB

10/11/2023
MADISON, Wis. — Deacon Hill hadn’t taken a snap in a college football game by the time Wisconsin’s Las Vegas Bowl preparations arrived in December 2021, but the buzz about his potential already was palpable.
Hill, a freshman in the midst of his redshirt year, had spent the season leading the scout team offense as the fourth-string quarterback behind upperclassmen Graham Mertz, Chase Wolf and Danny Vanden Boom. Bowl practices finally gave Hill, as well as several younger players, an opportunity to showcase his skills in the Badgers’ offense while veteran players rested. Hill took advantage with a series of throws that left his teammates in awe.
In one instance, he fielded a shotgun snap in Wisconsin’s indoor practice facility, rolled to his left with a defensive lineman barreling down on him and uncorked a perfectly placed 50-yard bomb off his back foot that reserve wide receiver Markus Allen caught behind a defensive back inside the 5-yard line on his way to the end zone. If Hill represented the future for Wisconsin whenever Mertz moved on, that future appeared to be bright.
“His pure arm talent is pretty incredible, honestly,” Badgers receiver Chimere Dike said then. “Some of the throws he makes are ridiculous.”
Ten months later, Hill was in the transfer portal.
Hill entering the portal in itself is not all that unusual of a story. According to The Athletic’s Max Olson, 29 of the top 50 quarterbacks in the Class of 2021, including Hill, have transferred. More than 70 percent of the top 50 prep quarterbacks who signed with FBS programs from 2017-20 transferred during their time in college.
The unique part of the story is this: One year after leaving Madison, Hill is now the unlikely starting quarterback for Big Ten rival Iowa (5-1, 2-1 Big Ten), which plays at Wisconsin (4-1, 2-0) at 3 p.m. CT on Saturday in a pivotal West Division game. If the Hawkeyes are to have a realistic opportunity to reach the Big Ten championship, Hill will have to beat his old team on the road.
“We practiced in Camp Randall when I was there,” Hill told Iowa reporters this week. “Obviously, it’s gonna be a little bit different setting.”
It has been a winding journey for Hill since he impressed his Badgers teammates during that bowl prep. Hill appeared to be in position to earn the backup job to Mertz last season after Wolf sustained a torn meniscus in his right knee during preseason practice. But true freshman Myles Burkett played late in the season opener of a blowout victory against Illinois State instead.
Two weeks later, during the second half against New Mexico State, Burkett played 18 snaps and helped to lead three scoring drives while completing 4-of-5 passes for 84 yards. Hill played just three snaps on a series that went three-and-out and ended with him being sacked.
Hill announced that he would enter the transfer portal on Oct. 9, 2022, one week after coach Paul Chryst was fired following a 2-3 start. Under NCAA rules, student-athletes are given an immediate 30-day period to permissibly enter the transfer portal after a coach is fired during the season, even if that timeframe falls outside the sport’s typical transfer window. That scenario allowed Hill to get a head start on finding his next destination.
“Just after Coach Chryst left, a little bit before that, I felt that … it had nothing to do with the program,” Hill said. “I love the program to death. It was a big part of my life for a long time. It just felt like I was kind of outgrowing the place, both in life and just in football. And so I felt that I just needed a fresh start somewhere else. So there’s no animosity towards Wisconsin football at all. I love those guys. I love that town. I love that program.”
Hill’s prep coach at Santa Barbara (Calif.) High School, JT Stone, has worked with Hill closely for a decade and said he considers him to be “like my son.” The two remain close and text and talk on the phone regularly.
“At some point, he made the decision that he could see the writing on the wall,” Stone said. “He felt like, ‘This isn’t the place for me. They don’t want me here, and it’s time for me to move on.’”
Hill said he spent the months after he entered the portal but still finishing classes at Wisconsin working out at the Nicholas Recreation Center, a facility near the Kohl Center and LaBahn Arena. Hill, who lived a block from the facility, said he performed sets that his trainer in California sent him. He also held throwing sessions with former Wisconsin wide receivers Allen and Stephan Bracey, who both entered the portal after Chryst was fired.
In late December, Hill committed to the FCS program at Fordham University in the Bronx, N.Y. But he flipped his commitment to Iowa less than two weeks later after Hawkeyes offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Brian Ferentz called to offer him a scholarship. Iowa needed a quarterback after losing Spencer Petras to graduation and backups Alex Padilla and Carson May to the transfer portal.
Hill finds himself at Iowa in large part because of Hawkeyes senior special assistant Jon Budmayr. He was the quarterbacks coach at Wisconsin who discovered Hill and became the first coach to extend a scholarship offer to him. Budmayr did so after watching Hill throw in person during a May 2019 evaluation period. At the time, Hill had only started a handful of games late in his sophomore season, which allowed him to put together 4 1/2 minutes worth of highlight film.
Hill also has the benefit now of working again with Keller Chryst, Paul Chryst’s nephew who is in his first year as an analyst with Iowa’s program. Keller Chryst was a graduate assistant during the previous two years at Wisconsin, which included him working directly with the quarterbacks last year.
In a perfect world for Iowa, Hill still would be a reserve this season. Although he beat out Joe Labas for the backup job during spring practices, the plan was for Michigan transfer Cade McNamara to lead the offense. But McNamara sustained a season-ending ACL tear in his left knee during the first quarter against Michigan State two Saturdays ago, which forced Hill into the No. 1 quarterback job. Iowa has won its past two games with Hill under center, but it hasn’t been particularly pretty.
Hill has completed just 37.5 percent of his passes (21 of 56) this season for 274 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions. In his first career start against Purdue on Saturday, he completed 6 of 21 passes for 110 yards with one touchdown and one interception, tying for the fewest completions by an Iowa quarterback in a game since 2007. He opened the game 1-of-10 for 13 yards with an interception.
Despite Hill’s wide receivers accounting for zero receptions, Iowa beat Purdue, 20-14. Hill threw a 22-yard play-action pass for a touchdown to tight end Erick All in the fourth quarter to account for Iowa’s final points but told reporters this week that he needed to shore up the footwork on his throws.
“He texted me right after,” Stone said. “Deacon’s going to be hard on himself. He says, ‘Coach, that’s the worst game I’ve played in my life.’ And I’m like, ‘Deacon, you won the game. And this is your first college start.’ I said, ‘I would hope that any school that’s invested in you sees potential of what I see. Don’t hang your hat on this. You’re only going to get better.’
“I’m just trying to get him to stay positive. He’s in a hard position. But I really think he’s going to get better the more snaps that he gets, and he’s playing in front of 80,000 people. Once you get used to that, it’s something he’ll gradually get better with.”
Hill’s arm strength, as he demonstrated at Wisconsin, hasn’t been the issue. The most significant challenge for Hill, who is 6 feet 3 and 258 pounds, has been developing touch on throws and understanding the complexities of college defenses, all while still being a fairly raw prospect. He played only three games in his senior year of high school after his season was moved to the spring of 2021 and shortened due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He didn’t appear in a game as a true freshman at Wisconsin, played three snaps in 2022 as a redshirt freshman, and now is thrust into the role of Big Ten starting quarterback at Iowa.
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz cited that inexperience and said it was understandable why Hill had been pressing a bit, describing this season as “kind of his maiden voyage.” Ferentz said that meant the coaching staff needed to have patience with him.
“I think he wants to get off to a better start, certainly,” Ferentz said of the approach for the Wisconsin game. “But no matter where we play, it’s going to be the challenge for him to play the way he can play. And hopefully after starting this last game now he’s got a little bit — he’s hardly a grizzled veteran — but at least he’s done it, and we’ll see how that goes.”
Wisconsin players who were once teammates with Hill said they have a reasonable grasp on what to expect from him and are eager to see how they match up.
“We’ve been able to go against Deacon a lot of times in practice, so we’ll definitely be prepared for him,” Badgers cornerback Alexander Smith said. “I’m happy to see him having success. But this week, we’re going in there to stop him, and coming in here, we’re not giving anything.”
Wisconsin coach Luke Fickell, who was hired seven weeks after Hill announced his transfer out of the program, said he would rely on the film from Hill’s time at Iowa rather than the input of Hill’s former Badgers teammates.
“It’s hard to get into all that,” Fickell said. “I think you’ve just got to make sure you do your job and evaluate what it is that they’ve done and see how they’re using him in different ways. I think all the transition that they’ve had this year and some of the injuries has kind of put them in a situation where they’ve got to do what they need to do to be successful and win. Obviously, he’s going to be the best opportunity for them at quarterback. I don’t know anything more than what I’ve seen in the last game-and-a-half from him.”
The circumstances surrounding this matchup of the border rivals, in their final game as divisional foes before Big Ten expansion, are unique. The goal for Hill is to focus on himself and not make the game any bigger than it already is.
“I think with Deacon, it’s the pressure he feels on himself,” Stone said. “He’s a damn near redshirt freshman coming in to help a football team. He’s not fully ready. Now, he’s a kid that’s going to be special. It’s supporting him. And I think he’s getting the support.
“Deacon doesn’t need to go out there and throw 800 touchdowns. He needs to manage the game and make the right decisions. That’s what I’m trying to get him to understand. He doesn’t have to force anything. If you expect him to throw 30 times, that’s not what we’re looking to do, especially in that offense. Run the football, and they’ll be fine.”

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