In his six years in Arizona, Auston Hillman has made a slow and sometimes painful transition from Oregon-bred hoophead to star high school quarterback.
But the Deer Valley senior has arrived on the big stage. And even if he’s a bit of a late bloomer, high school fans and college recruiters are starting to take notice.
Hillman leads the 6-0 Skyhawks in what sets up to be the best football season in Deer Valley history. His evolution from an athlete playing quarterback into a pass-first signal caller is a key component of the team’s breakthrough.
“I think he understands the concepts of our system much better,” second-year Deer Valley coach Joe Kersting said. “Last year, he tended to get a little antsy in the pocket and trusted his feet more than his arm and decision making.”
Hillman’s football education has been a crash course. He grew up loving basketball in Oregon and continues to play to this day.
Eighth grade was Hillman’s first foray into competitive football. Yet his athletic gifts were enough for him to earn the varsity starting job at Deer Valley two years later.
In between, he had his first taste of success, leading a freshman team with more talent than most of its predecessors.
“I knew when we were a freshman team that we could have something because we had an undefeated year,” Hillman said.
That team also featured Trae Armstrong, Stephen Arnold, Jacques Bruce, Tabor Matti, John Reed and Kenny Bowden, the backbone of this year’s squad.
That group went up to varsity as sophomores. Hillman took on the biggest role in 2009, and provided flashes of brilliance. But it was a trying season.
He threw for 1,833 yards and nine touchdowns, but tossed 18 interceptions, while rushing for 432 yards. However, the team struggled through a 4-7 season.
“My sophomore year it felt like we had a lot of guys who said, ‘I’m a senior and I’m going to get mine. You sophomores can sit the bench,’” Hillman said.
Ultimately that year cost Sven Christianson, Deer Valley’s longest tenured and most successful coach, his job. When Kersting arrived with his Glendale Community College pedigree, Hillman said he and the other holdovers knew they had to change their approach.
For his part, Kersting was used to pocket passers in his two decades at the helm of the Gauchos.
“I’ve never had an athlete like him playing quarterback,” Kersting said.
Both quarterback and coach had to adjust last year. Hillman went from operating almost exclusively out of the shotgun in Christianson’s spread attack to lining up mostly in a conventional pro set offense.
Amstrong became the focal point of the attack. And Hillman struggled with letting plays develop, preferring to take off if his early reads weren’t open.
“I had to learn to trust my team a lot more,” Hillman said.
He improved his touchdown to interception ratio, with 13 touchdowns and six interceptions, and added 1,702 passing yards and rushing for 610.
Kersting devised more ways to use his quarterback’s abilities as the season went on. Deer Valley won its final three games to claim a playoff berth.
Hillman’s potential came to the fore in the offseason. He attended Northern Arizona University’s camp and shined on the summer circuit.
Kersting said in the offseason the normally laid-back senior took more of the vocal leadership role that comes with being under center.
With the fastest back in the state, a true dual-threat quarterback, a deep threat like Bruce and a strong line led by Arnold and Matti, Deer Valley’s offense is a matchup nightmare.
“We have it all and we’re using every part to our advantage. Everyone trusts that we can do what needs to be done,” Hillman said.
“I think he’s very capable of playing at the next level. He’s got a very good arm. He’s accurate and he can throw every pass,” Kersting said. “Somebody’s going to figure it out, that this guy is a pretty special player. Like I tell people, ‘If he can’t be your starting quarterback, he can be your starting wide receiver or defensive back.’ He’s a really good athlete.”
Several Valley junior colleges have contacted Kersting, who thinks some Division I schools will get in the mix. Hillman is not worrying about it until the season is over.
But sometime during basketball season, it’s likely that this kid who arrived from Oregon with hoop dreams will decide where he starts his college football career.