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Ravens Insider: At Ravens’ revolving running back position, Justice Hill has always been there


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Justice Hill practiced at the Ravens’ facility each day this week. Afterwards, he showered, he talked to reporters, he attended team meetings, he left.

It’s unremarkable, really. Hill has only done what is expected of him. But his presence — and ascendance in recent weeks — is a lesson in consistency, in staying ready and being prepared when long-awaited moments arrive.

A fourth-round draft pick out of Oklahoma State in 2019, Hill didn’t enter this season a starter, like self-assured, former Ohio State star J.K. Dobbins, nor is he the fan-favorite son of a former Raven, like undrafted darling Keaton Mitchell. He doesn’t have the pedigree of veteran backups like Melvin Gordon III or Dalvin Cook.

But as the Ravens have strung together an outstanding 2023 campaign, complete with 13 regular-season wins and a trip to the AFC championship game Sunday against the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs, the 26-year-old Hill has been there every step of the way.

Injuries to Dobbins and Mitchell have been cruel reminders of the callousness of football. They were each lost to the season and the Ravens quickly beat on, winning games without them and adding replacements like Gordon and Cook.

Hill’s participation has fluctuated. In one game, he had only one touch; in another, he had more than 100 yards from scrimmage. Regardless, he’s been prepared.

“Because if you’re not ready when an opportunity arises,” Hill explained, “you’re not going to be here for long.”

Hill seldom played during the Ravens’ standout 2019 season, when Mark Ingram II ran for 1,000 yards, and again in 2020. Then, he missed 2021 with a torn Achilles tendon.

But he’s been a contributor each of the past two years, including career bests in the Ravens’ last two meaningful games. When Baltimore clinched the AFC’s No. 1 seed with a New Year’s Eve win over the Miami Dolphins, he racked up 112 yards from scrimmage. Saturday, in the Ravens’ divisional round victory over the Houston Texans, he rushed for 66 yards.

Those aren’t All-Pro numbers. But Hill has carved out an essential, varied role for the Ravens and, in turn, he’s been a key cog in the machine.

Ravensxe2x80x99 Justice Hill, left, catches and runs for 23-yards against Dolphinsxe2x80x99 Duke Riley in the third quarter. The Ravens defeated the Dolphins 56-19 at M&T Bank Stadium. (Kenneth K. Lam/Staff photo)
Ravens running back Justice Hill, left, gets past Dolphins linebacker Duke Riley in the third quarter Dec. 31. Hill had 112 yards from scrimmage in the victory, which clinched the AFC’s top seed. (Kenneth K. Lam/Staff)

If the best ability is availability — which Hill has demonstrated this year — the second best might be versatility. As a runner, pass-catcher and blocker, he’s shown that, too.

“He’s a complete back,” Cook told The Baltimore Sun. “I think he’s one of the most underrated backs in the league.”

Of the four NFL teams remaining, Kansas City has hard-running second-year back Isiah Pacheco, Detroit boasts a potent one-two combination of David Montgomery and Jahmyr Gibbs, and San Francisco leans on MVP finalist Christian McCaffrey. Hill and his backfield partner Gus Edwards don’t have the same level of name recognition as that group, but they’ve been reliable for one of the best Ravens teams ever. Sunday’s conference championship game will mark the first in Baltimore in more than 50 years.

“He excels most when he has great challenges in front of him,” Derrick Hill, Justice’s father, told The Sun.

Coach John Harbaugh described Hill, who signed a two-year, $4.5 million contract with the Ravens last year, as a “well-rounded back” and a “difference maker for us.”

“He’s a supremely talented player, but his heart is even bigger,” Harbaugh said.

In a brutal league, a running back can be one play away from an elevated role — or the injured list. It was the latter for Hill in 2021, as he tore his Achilles in September, ending his season before it began. But even that — a painful, frustrating injury with a monthslong recovery process — was an opportunity in his eyes.

Two months later, he and his now-wife welcomed their daughter to the world. He was at the hospital for the birth and spent time with his family during the initial, “hard months.”

“I looked at it as a blessing in disguise,” he told The Sun.

A picture of his daughter is pinned against the back of his locker. Next to it are two words: “My why.”

The name Justice has an innocuous inspiration, but a meaningful message. His father, Derrick, first got the idea for the name from watching former MLB player David Justice and both he and his wife, Tia, stuck with it because of its biblical relevance. “Blessed are those who act justly, who always do what is right,” reads a passage in Psalms.

Justice and his younger brother, Daxton, were both athletic as kids, which was no surprise, given their parents. Tia is strong — Derrick says when they were younger, she was the strongest girl he knew — and Derrick himself could dunk a basketball in ninth grade at 5 feet 7. Once, during an intramural game at Oklahoma State, he scored over future NBA player Bryant “Big Country” Reeves, he recalled.

That athleticism and discipline landed both Justice and Daxton, 23, in the NFL. The younger Hill played defensive back for Jim Harbaugh at Michigan, and was drafted in the first round in 2022 by the Cincinnati Bengals. For Derrick and Tia, it’s been natural to see them succeed. After all, that’s what they did their entire childhood.

“We do have those moments where it’s like, ‘Wow, this is something special,’” Derrick said.

DEC. 10, 2023: Baltimore RavensÕ Justice Hill, center, makes a key block on Los Angeles Rams punter Ethan Evans, left, allowing RavensÕ Tylan Wallace, right, to score the game-winning touchdown in overtime. The Ravens defeated the Rams 37-31 at M&T Bank Stadium. (Kenneth K. Lam/Staff photo)
Ravens running back Justice Hill, center, makes a key block on Rams punter Ethan Evans, left, allowing teammate Tylan Wallace, right, to score the game-winning touchdown in overtime Dec. 10. (Kenneth K. Lam/Staff)

As AFC North rivals, the brothers play one another at least twice a season and Daxton, a safety, tackled Justice earlier this year. (Justice didn’t realize until after the game it was his brother who had brought him down.)

It’s hard for Justice Hill to grasp the rarity that he and his brother have both reached the pinnacle of the sport, describing it as surreal.

“I feel like I’ll fully appreciate it when we’re both done, like sitting down, got the grandkids,” he said.

Hill’s parents have tried to capture what it was like to raise two NFL sons. They’re putting the finishing touches on a parenting book — working title, “The Flash Brothers” — with a Jim Harbaugh-written foreword full of lessons and stories that they plan to publish in a few months.

In ninth grade, the running back ahead of Justice Hill on the depth chart suffered an injury, giving him an opportunity. At Oklahoma State, there was a similar situation his freshman year.

“His standout moments have always been like, the next man up,” Derrick said.

That stems from preparedness as a student of the game. Hill performed well in school and on the Wonderlic test during the NFL draft process. Cook said “his knowledge of the game is just unbelievable.”

When the Ravens hired offensive coordinator Todd Monken, praised for his creative offense, Hill’s parents knew it would fit with him personally. And now, Hill has found himself to be indispensable, catching a career-high 28 passes this year.

“He’s always strived to be a different and out-of-the-box thinker,” Tia said.

The Ravens play their most important home game in team history Sunday, a trip to the franchise’s third Super Bowl hanging in the 60-minute balance as 70,000 fans look on. Hill’s parents and brothers, as well as several friends will be in attendance and, if history is any indication, he’ll be ready when his name is called.

Asked about the matchup between star quarterbacks Lamar Jackson and Patrick Mahomes, Hill said plainly, “it’s just another game in the way of our goals.”

“We’re trying to go win a Super Bowl, and if Mahomes is in the way of that, we’re going to go take care of it.”

AFC championship game

Chiefs at Ravens

Sunday, 3 p.m.


Radio: 97.9 FM, 101.5 FM, 1090 AM

Line: Ravens by 3 1/2

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