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Jeremy Hill still Bengals’ starting running back—for now

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The team is still viewing the fourth-year running back as their starter with the preseason nearing. But considering his struggles the past two years and with other talented backs on the roster, Hill knows the pressure is on to perform.

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals-Training Camp Kareem Elgazzar/The Cincinnati Enquirer-USA TODAY NETWORK

There was a time when Jeremy Hill was the darling of the Bengals’ roster, even if it seems like that was an eternity ago.

As a rookie in 2014, Hill had a massive second half of the season, finishing with 1,124 yards and nine touchdowns while splitting time with Giovani Bernard. Heading into the 2015 season he was praised and forecasted as one of the league’s top running backs. But, something quickly changed.

For the past two years, fumbles (2015) and a lack of big plays (2015 and 2016) have stunted Hill’s professional growth. He fixed the former problem last year, but a pedestrian 3.8 yards per carry to finish the year led the team to reassess the position this offseason. Joe Mixon was added in the second round and has wowed everyone at practice since; but Hill is still going to be relied upon this year.

“He knows that there is some fire behind him and he knows how talented that room is and he’s really taken that to heart,” running backs coach Caskey said via Cincinnati.com. “I don’t think he’s taking this camp any differently than he’s taking the other ones but honestly, there’s some people behind him right now that are chipping at his heels. And he knows that.”

Even with Mixon’s impressive start to camp and Bernard’s impressive return from a 2016 ACL tear, the team is seemingly preparing, as of now, to move forward in 2017 with Hill as the starter.

"But he’s also still the starter, so the biggest thing is come in here and have the confidence of a starter and have the ability to do everything we ask him to do at a high level so we can leave him in that position," Caskey continued.

There is no doubt that even though Hill is the “starter”, he’ll be sharing carries. Probably even more so than in the past, as the team will look to add Mixon somewhat heavily into the rotation, along with their usual mixing in of Bernard. Bengals.com’s Geoff Hobson suggested Mixon could see 15-20 carries as early as Week 1.

Hill will need to play well to not only keep his starting title, but also warrant a high-paying second contract, even if it’s unlikely to come from the Bengals. He seems to be sensing the pressure and is working hard to be a productive player for the team this year.

“I feel I had a great OTAs and training camp is coming along fine right now. It’s really just keeping my body in the best possible happened staying healthy and I think I can definitely achieve that,” Hill said. “The knowledge I’ve attained over the years, experience I’ve attained, you can’t teach that or you can’t put that in about. I’m excited, man. I’ve put the work in.”

What some people don’t know is that Hill battled shoulder and knee injuries for much of 2016. He injured his shoulder against Miami in Week 4 and wasn’t right the rest of the way. Still, he played in every game except the finale while dealing with the issue. Even so, Hill didn’t use it as an excuse for a subpar season and knows he has a chance to change his career path this year.

“Every time you step on that field you’ve got to re-prove yourself,” Hill told Jim Owczarski. “That’s what it is. Then also competing with the guys in our room. I can’t take a day off or take a rep off or take a play off. Everyone is watching. Guys are seeing what’s going on out there. As far as that, I’ve got to re-prove myself and the preseason is a perfect opportunity to do that.”

Last season, Hill and his coaches wanted him to work on remedying his fumble issues. He responded by not losing one all season, after losing eight (including the postseason) his first two years. This year, Hill is focused on raising his yards per carry average and popping more of those big plays we saw from his as a rookie.

“The yards per carry, for me this year, is something I really want to focus. That’s what it is,” Hill said pointedly. “I want to do that. If I do that I think everything else will fall in place. I think that’s been the question the past two seasons. I think I’ve done other things well, short yardage, scoring touchdowns, things like that, but the yards per carry definitely needs to increase. That’s something I’m going focus on this year and try and increase.”

He’ll have opportunities to do that, but with Mixon knocking on the door, he’ll have to prove himself fast. If Hill wants a nice second contract, he’ll need to make sure he makes the most of each opportunity in 2017.