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'It's a special place': Jay Hill, Weber State focused on taking 'next step' as a program

OGDEN — As the Weber State football program has continued its rise under head coach Jay Hill, expectations have continued to climb.

Coming off back-to-back Big Sky championship titles and FCS playoff quarterfinal appearances, talk of the Wildcats someday winning an FCS championship has intensified. Athlon Sports’ preseason FCS top-25 poll has Weber State slotted at No. 9, while Hero Sports’ preseason poll has the Wildcats at No. 11.

High expectations come with pressure, but it’s certainly more preferable than low expectations.

“We definitely don’t get scared about expectations," Hill said. "That’s what you should want. That’s like Alabama being scared that people think they might win a national championship. That’s not how the elite teams work.”

The Wildcats return impact starters like quarterback Jake Constantine, kick returner/wide receiver Rashid Shaheed, wide receiver Devon Cooley, guard Ty Whitworth and kick returner/running back Josh Davis on offense, while Adam Rodriguez and Jonah Williams will anchor Weber State’s defensive line.

Weber State Wildcats running back Josh Davis (28) looks for running room as Weber State and Maine play in FCS quarterfinal football action in Ogden on Friday, Dec. 7, 2018. Maine won 23-18.
Weber State Wildcats running back Josh Davis (28) looks for running room as Weber State and Maine play in FCS quarterfinal football action in Ogden on Friday, Dec. 7, 2018. Maine won 23-18.
Scott G Winterton

Shaheed, Whitworth, Davis, Williams and Rodriguez all earned first-team All-Big Sky honors, with Davis winning the Jerry Rice Award for the best freshman in the FCS. Shaheed, Davis and Rodriguez received All-America honors from Hero Sports. The Wildcats graduated six defensive All-Big Sky first-team members and will have to fill their shoes, but there is reason to dream big for Weber State fans.

Prior to Hill taking over as head coach in 2014, the Wildcats had won only four Big Sky titles since joining the conference in 1963 (1965, 1968, 1987 and 2008). Former head coach Ron McBride enjoyed success at Weber State, leading Weber State to its 2008 Big Sky championship and back-to-back playoff appearances in 2008 and 2009 before retiring following the 2011 season. Jody Sears lasted two years, going 2-10 in each season before Hill was hired.

Having inherited a team that had won a total of four games the previous two seasons, Hill gradually built the program up. The Wildcats made the playoffs in 2016 for the first time since 2009, then advanced to the quarterfinals in 2017 and 2018, where they lost to James Madison and Maine, respectively.

In just five years, Hill has built the program into one that regularly competes for Big Sky championships and playoff appearances.

“It’s evolved a lot. When I first got here, I don’t think the players felt we could win," Hill said. "As I saw that start to grow, now the players expect to win, which is good. That comes from doing things right, hard work. You earn the right to be proud and confident. You don’t just wake up one day and decide you’re going to be great — you earn that right.

"I’ve seen that with our players. They’ve earned the right. Now they wake up, they’re excited about life, they’re excited about going to school. It’s just been a gradual process that’s occurred that’s been fun to watch.”

Hill got his head coaching chance at Weber State after an extensive assistant coaching career at Utah. Hill played cornerback under head coach McBride for the Utes.

“As much as anything, the way (McBride) cared about his players and the way he recruited, he always had great talent because of who he is as a man,” Hill said.

Hill coached alongside McBride, Urban Meyer (“The guy is great at getting his teams to play at an extremely high level every day. He’s a great motivator. He was very, very impactful for me, especially when I was a young coach.”), Gary Andersen (“I watched his success and how the players loved him and played hard for him. Obviously, he’ll do a great job at Utah State.”) and Kyle Whittingham (“As much as anybody, the one who really gave me my chance was Coach Whittingham. He believed in me, stood by me, gave me a ton of responsibilities when I was at the University of Utah. There’s nobody that knows the game of football better than that guy.”).

Hill credits each coach as major influences on his coaching career.

As for his time with the Wildcats, Hill has embraced Weber State, and Weber State has embraced the coach and his family.

Weber State football coach Jay Hill talks about coaching in Ogden, Utah, on Tuesday, June 11, 2019.
Weber State football coach Jay Hill talks about coaching in Ogden, Utah, on Tuesday, June 11, 2019.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

“We love the community and we love the university," Hill said. "The administrators have been great to me and to my family, the university has been great to us. We feel a close tie and connection to the place, which is big. That’s what you should as a football coach.

"They’ve embraced us. We’ve been successful, they’ve really taken to the team. Support and fans, that number has just gone up every year. It’s a special place. All you’ve got to do is live here for a little bit and you’ll realize it’s a really cool place to live.”

When Hill’s wife, Sara, was first battling cancer in 2016, he saw the community support his wife, and Wildcat players shaved their heads in support. The treatments were just down the road from Stewart Stadium at McKay-Dee Hospital, allowing Hill to visit his wife often.

“I don’t know how we could have pulled it off at many other places, the way we were able to do it here,” Hill said.

The rise of the program has resulted in Weber State making upgrades to Stewart Stadium. A new 27,000-square-foot expansion to the stadium will be the new base of operations for the football team, featuring a weight room, team rooms, coaches’ offices and meeting rooms.

Hill hopes the building will help Weber State take the next step as a program.

“I believe (it) will be huge in the development on our program and us taking that last step that I talked about. It’s going to be big in recruiting, it will make us better coaches, we’ll have better areas to teach in, the film will be better, the weight room is better,” Hill said.

Coming off an 11-win season, the most wins in school history, the Wildcats will try to take that next step that every Weber State team before them couldn’t — advancing past the FCS quarterfinals and potentially winning a national championship.

“The next step involves a lot of things. We have to continue to get better personnel-wise, coaches have got to do a little better job of just making sure we’re in the proper situations at the right time," Hill said. "Just making that play that’s critical to advancing into the next round — that’s what we did not do against James Madison two years ago and that’s what we did not do against Maine. We need to make one more play.”