CONWAY — Aramis Hillary has spent many a Saturday afternoon inside Appalachian State’s Kidd Brewer Stadium – but none like this.
Hillary said he and his family used to go to six or seven games a year in Boone, N.C., to watch his older brother CoCo play for the Mountaineers, so he’s looking forward to the opportunity to return this Saturday with Coastal Carolina. And especially now, as his college football career has weaved itself to the point that the fifth-year senior ranks as one of the most productive quarterbacks in the FCS.
A transfer from South Carolina to Coastal after his redshirt-freshman year and a coaching change after his junior season haven’t made for the smoothest journey for Hillary, but in his final season it does indeed seem as if he’s arrived.
“It’s kind of hard,” he said when asked to reflect back and put it all in perspective. “I don’t really know where to start.”
Start with the numbers.
Through the season’s first four weeks, Hillary’s 302.5 yards of total offense per game ranks ninth nationally among FCS players and leads the Big South Conference by a wide margin as the next closest player is at 171 per game. His 281.8 passing yards per contest ranks 10th in the FCS and would be a CCU single-season record. And with 1,127 total passing yards he’s on pace for 3,099 over 11 games, which would fall just short of Tyler Thigpen’s program record 3,296 (in 12 games).
Not bad for a guy who says he wasn’t sure he still had the starting job when Coastal brought in a new coaching staff this offseason.
“The quarterbacks that we’ve got behind [me], they’re going to be great, they’re going to be fun to watch these next couple years,” Hillary said. “So my place wasn’t actually secured when I heard that coach [David] Bennett left. I just had to go back to the drawing board to figure out what could I do to prove myself again.”
Well, junior offensive lineman Jamey Cheatwood doesn’t totally buy that.
“If you know Aramis, he’s a very confident player and I don’t think it was a competition from the get-go with him,” Cheatwood said. “He’s not going to let anybody start in front of him. He’s going to compete till the end.”
Not only has Hillary found his place in new offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude’s offense, he’s thrived.
After passing for 1,749 yards last season in his first year as a collegiate starter, Hillary has established new single-game personal yardage highs in three of the first four games this season – including last Saturday. He completed 30-of-47 passes for 356 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions at FBS foe Toledo as the Chants threatened for an upset deep into the fourth quarter against the heavily-favored Rockets.
For the second time already this season, he was named the Big South’s offensive player of the week for his efforts.
“It’s quite rewarding,” he acknowledged. “With all the accolades, it feels good. If somebody tells you any different, they’re lying to you. But honestly what I believe is that it’s not me. It’s not me out there. Coach Patenaude does a great job scheming up things, he does a great job coaching me up and it’s obvious, if you’ve ever been to a Coastal Carolina football game, those guys that we’ve got on the perimeters, they’re the best in the country, I think.”
Hillary no doubt has developed quite a chemistry with his receivers, that being no more apparent than in the team’s 47-45 win earlier this month at Furman as he threw big strike after big strike to juniors Matt Hazel and DeMario Bennett at the end of regulation and through three overtime periods.
As for Patenaude, the new coordinator and the veteran quarterback have had an interesting relationship to this point. Patenaude is the first to admit that he is not easy on his signal-callers at practice during the week. There’s two schools of thought on coaching quarterbacks he said – the coddling, reassuring approach ... and his way.
“I’m not the most positive reinforcer during the week in practice,” he said. “It’s a lot different during the game on Saturday. I want to make it as simple as possible, but my philosophy with quarterbacks has always been to put as much pressure on them as you possibly can during the week with your level of expectation and being really demanding with where they go with the ball and how they get the ball there so that on Saturday it’s not a big deal.”
Patenaude added that his offense has also put a lot more responsibility on Hillary to make reads and adjustments at the line of scrimmage than he’s had to in the past.
That’s where some of that doubt might have crept in early on in the process.
“When coach Patenaude got here, it was different,” Hillary said. “He’s always down my throat. It seems like I’m not doing the right thing. But he was doing it for a reason. Now that I look back on it, he was doing it for a reason. It’s paid off. It’s been aggravating like I said, but it’s paid off and I don’t mind [any] more.”
It’s paid off for Hillary and the Chants (2-2), for that matter. The team ranks second in the Big South in total offense, averaging 403 yards per game so far – which is well up from their mark of 323.7 per game last year.
And as Patenaude said while referring to the 47 passes Hillary threw last week, the quarterback has certainly earned his trust at this point while perhaps also exceeding expectations.
“Because the expectations on the quarterback in this system are just so high and he has to do so many different things, it’s really just a learning curve,” Patenaude said. “And really, you don’t see the type of production that he’s been able to get so far until really the second year in the system. But because he can break defenses down with his legs and run around and make plays, he doesn’t always fit within the confine of what that play is.”
This is where Hillary will again point to the protection afforded by his offensive linemen, the playmakers like Hazel, Bennett and junior slot receiver Niccolo Mastromatteo and the play-calling that has him on his way toward a career season.
“I’m just the quarterback in the spotlight,” he said.
As for the upcoming clash with No. 17-ranked Appalachian State, Hillary’s family will again be making the trek to Boone, N.C., this week, he said, and he’s been talking to his brother CoCo about the game. This time, though, he’s the one everybody’s coming to see.
And he’s proven to be worth the price of admission so far.
Contact RYAN YOUNG at 626-0318.