May 10, 2013; Englewood, CO, USA; Denver Broncos running back Montee Ball (38) during rookie minicamp at the Broncos training facility. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

RB Ronnie Hillman Bulks Up For Broncos

Ronnie Hillman (21) runs with football against the Baltimore Ravens in double overtime of the AFC divisional round playoff game at Sports Authority Field. (Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports)

There are three tiers of running backs on the Denver Broncos’ roster.

The first consists of 31-year-old Willis McGahee. He’s a proven veteran, and averaged 4.4 yards per carry before he went down in week 11 with a torn MCL and a compression fracture in his right knee when it hit the helmet of Chargers’ CB Quentin Jammer.

The second level of running backs consists of Knowshon Moreno, Lance Ball, and Jeremiah Johnson. All of them are in their mid-20’s and have shown glimpses of greatness at times. The things about greatness is it has to be more consistent. Moreno has played in 15 games combined over the past two seasons thanks to injuries. Ball averaged 3.8 yards per carry in 2012. Johnson replaced Moreno in 2011 and averaged 5.5 yards per carry in eight games. Perhaps for reasons related to consistency, these three guys haven’t received the starting call.

Then there’s the third tier of running backs on the roster. Ronnie Hillman, 21, and Montee Ball, 22, have sparked the Broncos’ interest in the last two drafts, respectively.

In his rookie year, Hillman rushed for 330 yards (3.9 average) and one touchdown in 14 games. Typical for rookies, Hillman ended the season much lighter than he started. After Wednesday’s OTA, Hillman said he weighed somewhere in the neighborhood of 180 pounds when the season ended.

We can all remember this series of plays from the playoff loss to the Ravens: With the Broncos up by seven points late in the fourth quarter, the team simply needed just a few first downs to run out the clock.

After a timeout by the Ravens, the Broncos had the ball on their own 44-yard line on 1st-and-10. Remember the team had lost Moreno for the game due to injury. Hillman rushed up the middle until he was tackled by Ray Lewis. The result: 2 yards. The Ravens burned another timeout. On the next play, Hillman ran to the left until he was tackled by Ma’ake Kemoeatu and Lewis. The result: 1 yard. This brings the Broncos to their own 47-yard line at the two-minute warning. Things didn’t work out for Hillman up the middle or on the left side, so on third down he went up the right side. The result: No gain and another tackle by Kemoeatu. Britton Colquitt trotted out onto the field to punt the ball to Joe Flacco, Jacoby Jones and the rest of the Ravens. We know what happens from there.

*Cease the flashback to “The Nightmare.”

After averaging 1.0 yard per carry on that important series, Hillman realized he needed to put on some bulk.

“Right now, I’m probably about 15 pounds heavier than I was in the last game that we played,” Hillman said on Wednesday. “I’ll probably play at like 195 [pounds].”

Hillman worked out in California this off season and he says that since he’s practicing with the extra weight now, he’ll be comfortable with it by the time the season gets underway. The extra weight should also help him with his pass blocking.

Montee Ball (38) during rookie minicamp at the Broncos training facility. (Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports)

“The thing that he’s shown us the last three days is at least his aggressiveness and willingness to go attack the blitzer,” offensive coordinator Adam Gase said. “That’s what we need to see. When we get in pads, that’s going to be a different deal as far as, OK, is he going to be able to sustain and do it consistently? I think he will. That size that he’s put on, that should help him.”

After injuries to McGahee and Moreno last season, the Broncos realized that they needed to add even more youth to the running back position. That’s why they drafted Ball. The rookie out of Wisconsin currently has over 20 pounds on Hillman. He was the country’s leading rusher in 2011 with 1,923 yards and 39 touchdowns (33 rushing), which was also the year that he was a Heisman Trophy finalist. In 2012, Ball racked up 1,850 yards and 22 touchdowns.

“He’s trying to pick up the offense. He’s a rookie,” Gase said. “There are a lot of things going on and he’s trying to pick it up as quick as possible. Obviously drafting him in the second round, we’re looking for him to make some kind of impact for us and be able to be on the field five, six plays and work together with that group of running backs.”

“Another great player added to the roster,” Hillman said of Ball.

Just like John Elway always says, the young guys are our future.

With productivity, they’re also another good insurance policy on Peyton Manning.

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