The Ghost Who Haunts Defensive Backs

Friday November 7th, 2014

INDIANAPOLIS — T.Y. Hilton picked up a new nickname this fall, courtesy of Colts coach Chuck Pagano: “The Ghost.” It fits the way the 5-foot-9, 178-pound (that may be generous) speedster plays, but it also fits the path Hilton took to where he is now. He came out of nowhere to form a tandem with Andrew Luck that could be version 2.0 of Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison.

Hilton went to Florida International, a Sun Belt Conference team that started playing football only six years before he arrived, and he was a late third-round draft pick who couldn’t display his speed at the combine because of a torn quad. Now he ranks second in the NFL with 937 receiving yards, and he has 15 catches of 20 yards or more (tied for best in the league). Nearly 77% of his catches have gone for first downs, making him a central piece of the league’s best passing offense. The Ghost prefers to fly under the radar, but The MMQB caught up with him last Friday—on Halloween, appropriately.

VRENTAS: What do you think of “The Ghost” nickname?

HILTON: I like it. I think it kind of fits me. Because when they finally see me, it’s too late. I’m already past them. Like Casper.

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VRENTAS: Watching you and Andrew Luck connect on some of these deep passes, it looks so easy. But it really isn’t. How do you make them work?

HILTON: Me and Andrew have a good understanding of one another. Our timing is pretty much down. Even when we miss, we always come back and talk about it and make sure we are on the same page, so I think that helps. By now, we have had time to work on our timing, and timing is key. During the offseason, we get together and work out, and in between practice series, we still throw to one another. It’s all about understanding the spot he needs me in and getting to that spot. He just has a sense for me, a sense for my speed. He knows the perfect moment to let the ball go, and I know the perfect time to kick in that gear and go get it.

VRENTAS: Before you got here, Peyton Manning formed great QB-WR combinations with Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne. Do you aspire to have that same connection with Luck?

HILTON: I always watched Peyton throw to Marvin and Reggie, and playing the game Madden, I would always put myself in at the slot [as a Colts receiver] just to play with those guys. For me to be here now, playing with Reggie ... the things I can learn from him and grow ... I call him my big brother. He’s always there for me, always looking after me. Whenever I get a chance, I make sure to ask him any question that I have. With Andrew, me and Reggie, we have that same aspect that we can be good like they were. So that’s what we look forward to.

VRENTAS: What’s the best lesson Reggie has taught you?

T.Y. Hilton ranks second in the NFL with 937 receiving yards, and he has 15 catches of 20 yards or more (tied for best in the league). Nearly 77% of his catches have gone for first downs. (MSA/Icon Sportswire)

HILTON: The one thing he told me that really stuck with me is, whenever your number is called, make sure you are ready. So I took that and ran with it. The way he practices, he practices very hard. He never comes out. And the way he runs his routes. It’s very unique. You have to watch him in good detail.

I had an offseason with him, so I stole some things and put them into my game, which has really helped me reach the next level. I can’t really give them out. But it’s just the little things. He always catches looking in, looking in to the tuck. He always keeps his eyes on the ball. Right now, I am using that. My first year, I had a lot of drops. So my second year, I got with him and saw how he caught the ball, and it’s working out. I would always try to catch the ball and get going, sometimes before the ball got in my hands and I would drop it. Right now, I am finishing the catch and using my speed afterwards, instead of using my speed first.

VRENTAS: How has your route-running improved?

HILTON: My first two years I was able to beat guys with speed, so this offseason, I wanted to become a better route runner. I always had good routes, but now I am even more crazy with my routes. With the comeback routes, I wanted to learn to just keep coming back to the ball. Sometimes I would come back and stop, but now I am fully coming back into the catch and then making guys miss and getting YAC.

VRENTAS: The two leading receivers in the NFL right now are you and Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown, two kids who played in the same Gwen Cherry Park youth football league in Miami. What are the chances?

HILTON: It is crazy. But we always had that same dream, that we wanted to make it to that next level. We’re both here, and we’re both succeeding. Whenever he is playing, I make sure I watch him and cheer him on. He’s a great guy; another guy I look up to. I have his film and his highlights on my iPad, so I can watch the way he runs routes and the way he beats defenders. He’s the same height as me, has tremendous heart, goes over the middle, a deep threat guy just like me. I’ve taken a lot from him.

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VRENTAS: What did you learn from having your dad coach you in that youth league?

HILTON: He treated everybody the same. Even though I was his son, he treated me the same. I was another player that he really cared about. That pushed me and helped me to get better.

VRENTAS: Your first name is Eugene. What does T.Y. stand for?

HILTON: My daddy’s name is Tyrone. So at Gwen Cherry Park, they abbreviated it and started calling me little T.Y. Just stuck with me. My youngest son, he’s 2, I call him Ty Hilton. My older son, Eugene, is 7.

VRENTAS: How did you end up at Florida International, a school that first played football in 2002?

HILTON: Put two hats on the bed, FIU and West Virginia. Put my son, Eugene, in the middle. He crawled to FIU eight times, so that’s when I knew it was destined for me to go there. I prayed about it, and I thought it was the right choice. Once I signed, I wanted to build something special. I could have gone to West Virginia, something that Pat White and those guys already built. Instead, I went to FIU, laid my own legacy down and helped them build that program up. Mario Cristobal is a great coach. I trusted him, and my family trusted him.

Hilton finished his FIU career with 229 receptions for 3,531 yards and 24 TDs. (Samuel Lewis/Icon SMI)

VRENTAS: Look back at where some of the receivers in the 2012 draft went: No. 5, Justin Blackmon. No. 30, A.J. Jenkins. No. 43, Stephen Hill. No. 92, T.Y. Hilton. Are you showing teams what they missed?

HILTON: I knew I was going to fall in the draft. I had a torn quad coming out, so I knew teams were going to pass on me. I was just waiting for the right team to take that chance. I always play with a chip on my shoulder no matter what, anyway.

VRENTAS: You did the LeBron James “stomp” after scoring a touchdown in Houston, and he gave you a shoutout on Twitter. What was that like?

HILTON: It was a cool moment. He’s my favorite basketball player, a guy I look up to, so it meant a lot. I know he always watches football, and he’s a big football fan. I thought that was the perfect moment to do [the stomp] because [the Texans] were coming back. I saw one game when LeBron hit a buzzer-beater three to win the game, and then he did [the stomp]. The Texans were coming back, the crowd was into it, and then when I scored, it took the air out of them. So I just thought I should do it. I watch LeBron, day in and day out. I still watch him right now [during the season]. I take some things from him, even thought he’s on the court and I’m on the field, just in the way he plays. He always goes hard, no matter what. And for me, I give my all whenever I am out on the football field.

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VRENTAS: Growing up, when did you first realize you were fast?

HILTON: I didn’t think I was fast. I think I just had enough to get by. I could catch the ball and make a few guys miss, and I had enough speed to get past everybody. I always say, I got enough speed.

VRENTAS: Well, you ran a 40-yard dash somewhere in the 4.3-second range at your Pro Day. That’s pretty fast.

HILTON: I’m not fast. I got enough speed.

VRENTAS: Has being smaller helped you enhance other areas of your game, since you don’t have a height advantage?

HILTON: The one thing you really can’t coach is heart. I have a lot of heart. When I’m out there, I play with a chip on my shoulder, and a lot of heart.

VRENTAS: It seems like you prefer to fly under the radar. True?

HILTON: I’ve been flying under the radar my whole life. Always been an underdog. But you know, underdogs always come out on top. I have no worries. I am a humble guy, so I just take it and run with it.

VRENTAS: For this team, right now, expectations are pretty high. How far do you think you can go this season?

HILTON: We can go as far as we want to go. We are playing in all phases really well. If we can keep that up—our goal is Arizona [the site of the Super Bowl]. We could get there.

VRENTAS: Last question. Why do you have a “Jaws” backpack in your locker?

HILTON: It depends on the game. Who I want to be, what type of superhero effort I need, that’s the type of bookbag I will wear. This one is Jaws. I smell blood in the water; it’s time to attack. When sharks smell blood, they attack. I’ve had that since the Houston game [when Hilton had nine catches for 223 yards], and it’s been doing me real well, so I haven’t put it back down yet. When it does me wrong, I’ll change it up.

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