Nashville Kats coach Pat Sperduto knew in training camp Jarrick Hillery had everything it took to be a big star in the Arena Football League, but he wasn't about to let him be an overnight sensation.
Sperduto was afraid if he played Hillery too soon it would hurt his confidence.
"It's hard to let a player that talented sit," Sperduto said. "But we are going to have to do the same thing with some young players this year. There is a learning curve. You can't throw a guy into the fire just like that in the first week. I think it would have ended up hurting him."
Sperduto credits offensive coordinator Marty Lowe and defensive secondary coach Brenard Wilson with bringing Hillery slowly into the systems.
"They did a great job of weaning him in and getting him into a comfort zone in weeks six and seven when his production started to soar," Sperduto said. "Guys like Travis Reece and C.J. McLain who have a good chance of being good players in this league may not get as many reps as they want early because they are not prepared for all of the ebbs and flows of this game."
Hillery, a former Tennessee State standout, waited and waited some more until his chance to play. He would get the call in seven regular season games and all four playoff games and played well enough to earn a spot on the league's all-rookie team.
"Last year we had a lot of veterans on the team," Hillery said. "The veterans are expected to play. I was upset at first, but there was nothing I could do about it but wait my turn. Once some guys started going down and I got my opportunity I just took advantage of that."
But Hillery, a wide receiver-defensive back for the Kats, can't help but think that if he had played more in the first half of the regular season he could have been rookie of the year in the league. And that is not the boast of an ego-driven player, but simply a statement of facts. In his seven regular season games he had 43 catches for 403 yards and 107 yards rushing on 27 carries. He scored six touchdowns rushing and three as a receiver. He also returned nine kickoffs for 174 yards, an average of 19.3 yards per carry. Defensively, he had 34 tackles, 29 solo.
"I really thought I could have had a lot better numbers," Hillery said. "There were a whole lot of guys on our team making plays. But I proved to be a player who could handle the pressure and come out and play good football.
"I'm just going to do what I did last year. I'm going to go out and take care of my responsibilities and everything else will work itself out."
He admits that even though he personally thought he had the skills to play the game, he was still surprised at the amount of playing time he did get.
"I knew if I got on the field it was going to be hard to take me off because I have confidence in my ability and what I can do," Hillery said. "This game is really made for me. I have played both sides of the ball and I have played both positions well."
Hillery said it took him until almost the end of the season to truly feel comfortable with all of the challenges the Arena game presents.
"The toughest part for me at first was running routes," Hillery said. "I hadn't run routes since my sophomore year of college. I had to learn how to get open again. There are different angles that you have to take in this game to get open. This year I feel a lot more comfortable."
Like last year the receivers will be counted on as a group to fill in for Cory Fleming, a four-year star for the Kats, who will miss eight-to-12 weeks while recovering from a broken right ankle he sustained Sunday in practice.
"Cory catches a lot of balls and makes a lot of plays for us," Hillery said. "He has been the leading receiver here every year. The guys are going to have to step up.
"Last year we had Freddie Scott, Tyronne Jones, Darryl Hammond and Jeff Russell making plays. We have some new guys who are going to step up and make plays for us also."
Sperduto expects Hillery to make another major step toward Arena League stardom.
"Jarrick is going to be a lot better," Sperduto said. "He is going to be a guy who makes strides quicker. At the end of the year it is hard to say there were many two-way guys better than him. This year he has something to prove and I think he will.
"He can play defense. He can play offense. He is going to hit. He is going to run. He is going to tackle. He does all the basics you are looking for."
The Kats close out preseason games Friday night at 6:30 when they travel to Grand Rapids, Mich., to face the Rampage.