Taysom Hill is asked how surprised he was about his 2018 season. He pauses for a moment.
"When you say 'surprised,'" he offers, "in what capacity? Quarterback? Offense? Special teams? Or all three?"
It's not a boast, or a flex. It's just a reflection of how a sophomore season in the NFL ramped him up from just another backup quarterback to something of a New Orleans superhero. Hill finished third on the Saints in rushing yards, played 343 snaps on special teams, and put in as much work as a quarterback (58 snaps) as he did at tight end. That wasn't all: He lined up in the slot and out wide as well. And this wasn't in garbage time. Head coach Sean Payton often went to Hill in red zone or short-yardage situations. In one season, Hill found a role that is unlike any other in the modern NFL.
He's now referred to by teammates and fans and coaches as everything from "The Mormon Missile" to "Thor-terback" to "Fred Flintstone." There's even a cartoon in which he plays a satirical role of Tyler Durden in "Flight Club," telling Drew Brees, "You were looking for a way to stop being boring and great, so you made *me* up so you could be interesting and great!"
There's some truth to that, as the Saints offense has been machine-like under Brees for many years. Hill made it more fun, unpredictable and mesmerizing. He was several players at once, and there was always a promise of some other talent he was about to show. (He kicked and punted in high school, in case you're wondering.) There probably isn't a soul in the Crescent City who doesn't want more in 2019. "I think I played 20 percent [of offensive snaps]," Hill says. "I would love for that number to jump even higher."
It's appropriate that the inspiration for Taysom Hill's name came from a construction company. Taysom Construction of Pocatello, Idaho, gave his parents a spark of an idea, and the name kept growing on them. Taysom the boy would be a sturdy structure built from a lot of solid parts: his mother Natalie ran track and played volleyball and his father Doug ran track and played football. The couple had three sons and a daughter, with Taysom the youngest, and he spent his childhood trying to catch up with the older kids. Jordan was a linebacker and bull-strong. Dexter was a quarterback and cat-quick. Taysom became something of an amalgam of both. But it was Dexter who was the biggest influence. "Taysom got Dexter's skill set at a young age," Doug says.
"Dexter was my very first quarterback," says Taysom's coach at Highland High, Gino Mariani. "Very much like Taysom. Dexter was extremely competitive. Just not the same size. A little smaller."
When it was Taysom's turn, the school already had a starting quarterback, so Mariani used Hill the way Saints would many years later. "He played a lot of positions for us," Mariani says. "We used him at some defensive positions when the going got tough. As a sophomore he was our starting wide receiver. He was our placekicker, he did kickoffs, he was our punter. We used him at safety and middle linebacker … when it was fourth-and-2 and we needed a stop."
Even when Taysom moved to the position of starting quarterback, Mariani felt he had to change his West Coast offense to a spread to fit his prodigy. "You don't see a kid who's 6'2" with his speed, and he was 219 when he played for me," the coach says. "Just so strong. Fast. He knew his ability. Knew what he could do. His intelligence was incredible."
On the first series of his senior season, Hill took the snap and rolled out to his left. He didn't see any openings, so he drew the play out as he approached the sideline. Then he tucked the ball and took off, running 87 yards. On the sideline, the coaches just looked at each other in amazement. There really wasn't anything Taysom couldn't do. As a prep he averaged 45 yards per punt.
He starred at a summer camp run by Jim Harbaugh at Stanford, and then the Pac-12 coaches came to Pocatello. "I was screaming at the top of my lungs he was the best QB in the country," Mariani says. "But here in little Pocatello, Idaho, not many people were going to listen."
Harbaugh listened. He signed Hill, and it seemed like a perfect fit … until the Stanford coach left for the NFL. Hill went to BYU instead, enrolling there after his Latter Day Saints mission was completed.
The pattern repeated in Provo: Hill was a backup quarterback who was too good to keep off the field. He threw a touchdown on his very first play from scrimmage as a Cougar. And just like in high school, he took the starting job and thrived, throwing for 19 touchdowns as a sophomore. Then the injuries came.
Hill suffered four season-ending injuries in five years at BYU: knee, leg, foot, elbow. He went undrafted in 2017 despite running a 4.4 40 at BYU's Pro Day. Hill had to plan the rest of his life, which he hoped would include work as a venture capitalist. If it wasn't for the Packers taking a shot on him, he would likely be wearing a shirt and tie now.
Hill played in only three exhibition games with Green Bay in 2017, but he had three touchdowns (two passing, one rushing), and that was enough for the Saints to grab him only a day after the Packers let him go. By the end of that season, he was making special teams tackles in the NFL. He had no idea what to expect in Year 2, but the Saints had big plans. Hill would need an extra playbook. "A very pleasant surprise," he says.
So now Hill is in a situation unique in all of the NFL: He plays special teams with furious abandon, as if he's totally expendable, and he studies the quarterback position with extreme care, as if he's irreplaceable. He's the bull in the china shop on one play, and he's the fine china on another.
"I would love to have the opportunity to compete to play the quarterback position in the NFL," he says in one breath, and then, in the next breath: "I would love for my role to continue to expand and grow." Those two sentences don't necessarily go together. Quarterbacks are the ones in the red mesh jerseys, not the ones screaming headlong into the fray.
By putting himself in harm's way, whether as a kick returner or a special teams player or even as a tight end, Hill risks the dream he wants the most. And he may be risking a future that the Saints need the most. Passers who grasp Payton's offense aren't easy to come by, after all. Will Hill ever be considered a true quarterback?
The Saints have Teddy Bridgewater as Brees' true backup, and he's two years younger than Hill, who will be 29 in August. Hill the Swiss Army knife is very much in his prime, but Hill the quarterback is not young. His all-around ability seems to overshadow his promise at the position that matters most.
"His strength is under center," his father Doug says. "It kinda bothers me."
What doesn't bother Doug, or Taysom, is the chance to learn from Brees. "To experience that was definitely the highlight for me last year," Hill says.
When he and Dexter played in the yard as kids, it was often Brees whom Dexter emulated most. It's Dexter's old No. 7 that Taysom wears to honor him. That's because when Dexter was 31 years old, he passed away from the effects of opioid addiction. It was crushing for Taysom and all of the Hills. But it is a constant source of pride that Taysom is No. 7, right alongside Brees on every football Sunday.
"Dexter," Natalie says, "would have thought that was fantastic."
(Top photo by Michael C. Hebert, courtesy of www.neworleanssaints.com)