In fact, if everything works out the way Nutt hopes, the 6-foot-2, 238-pounder from Conway will rarely leave the field when the Razorbacks have the ball.
Arkansas spent spring drills using Hillis in a variety of roles at running back, fullback, tight end, H-back and receiver. The goal is to find numerous ways for the versatile back, who scored eight touchdowns as a true freshman, to get his hands on the ball.
“His learning curve was just awesome at fullback, tailback, H-back, tight end, in motion, receiver,” Nutt said about Hillis’ spring. “So we’re excited about using him in a lot of different ways, getting him the football and letting him play running back at a lot of different positions.
“I think he can cause some problems for some people.”
Nutt hopes Hillis’ role will be similar to former Auburn running back Ronnie Brown, who accumulated 1,226 all-purpose yards and 9 touchdowns last season. Brown shared the backfield with Carnell Williams, but played a valuable role because of his size, speed, athleticism, blocking and pass-catching abilities.
Hillis displayed some of those traits in 2004 before breaking three bones in his vertebrae during the 45-30 loss at Florida. It took him a few weeks to regain his early-season form, but Hillis finished with 465 all-purpose yards.
“He’s the type of athlete that you can do that type of thing,” said receiver Cedric Washington. “If you have a guy of that caliber, of course you want to utilize him as much as you can.”
Nutt said it also helps that Hillis is more eager, and better prepared, to take on a larger role after his experiences as a freshman.
“I think his head was screwed on so good this spring,” Nutt said. “He was very focused in school. I’ve seen a big improvement there. Very focused in football meetings. (Running backs coach) Danny (Nutt) said it felt like he was so much more focused this spring than he was even in the fall.
“He wants to improve. He wants to get better. He knows he can get better.”
There’s no doubt the Razorbacks will try to utilize Hillis’ talents next season after the departure of veteran quarterback Matt Jones. He’ll be one of several weapons, including Washington, tailback De’Arrius Howard and receiver Marcus Monk that will be counted on to lead Arkansas’ offense.
Nutt, who called Hillis one of Arkansas’ most improved players, has no doubt Hillis will produce in a multi-faceted role.
“We’ve never had a player like that,” Nutt said. “Not one that can be a fullback, tailback, receiver, tight end, and can actually play all four. And that’s not counting kickoff return and special teams. He can do that, too. He’s just so productive.
“The defense, they’re going to be very aware of where he’s located when he’s on the field.”
Howard was ranked 80th on CollegeFootballNews.com’s 100 Heisman Trophy hopefuls list last week. The senior was categorized as one of 20 “educated guesses” that was a “major long shot” to win the award.
The list wasn’t designed as a ranking of the top players in college football because it didn’t include offensive linemen and most defensive players. It mostly consisted of quarterbacks and running backs from big-name teams that could play a part in the Heisman chase.
Howard said any recognition is nice, but was more concerned with improving on last season’s 5-6 record. Howard was on the preseason Doak Walker Award watch list as a sophomore in 2003. He finished the year with 267 yards and 6 touchdowns.
“People tell me about stuff like that all the time,” Howard said. “That’s a nice honor and I’m glad to get mentioned like that. But I’ve already learned that if you don’t go out there on the field and perform, it doesn’t matter.”
Arkansas academic coordinator Bart Byrd said Howard was one of seven returning football players recognized during Saturday’s graduation ceremonies at Arkansas.
The seven players that earned degrees are: Howard, linebacker Pierre Brown, offensive linemen James Johnson, defensive ends Clarke Moore and Darren Rogers, receiver Richard Bracken and fullback Justin Slaughter.
Former receiver Steven Harris and offensive lineman Gene Perry also graduated this year. And former quarterback and current graduate assistant Dowell Loggains earned his master’s degree in adult education.