ATLANTA — Even noise-canceling headphones and blinders for his eyes may have done little to distract Stephen Hill from all the outside attention.
It was the same type of attention the young ballplayer didn’t need to heed.
But as it was, he heard all the comparisons. He read the expectations of reporters and fans who believed this was his year. He digested every morsel of the well-wishing hype machine that believed this was his time, that believed this was his opportunity to take over for a not-so-forgotten, recent Georgia Tech legend and emerge as the player everyone knew he could be.
That hype machine included him.
“For me, I was trying to take it all too fast,” Hill said.
Given the unofficial title of “next major playmaker” — whether he truly wanted the crown or not — Hill was presumed all offseason and preseason to be the primary replacement to Demaryius “Bay Bay” Thomas, a big-bodied pass catcher who was taken as the first receiver in April’s NFL draft.
Those were lofty shoes to fill to be sure, but Hill, and many others, believed the sophomore was the man for the job.
“There was this big hype over ‘Bay Bay’s gone, and Stephen Hill’s supposed to be this big thing,’ ” a reflective Hill said earlier this week. “But it’s not about that. It’s just about me coming out there working hard and trying to help out the team and doing what I was able to do most of last year.”
Chiefly, that is catch passes and run like the wind after touching them.
One year after hauling in six receptions and solidifying himself as a big-play threat as a true freshman, Hill has struggled this season fulfilling the high goals that he and others set.
Drops — not miraculous, one-handed grabs and touchdown-scoring catches — have been the story of his year.
None of his drops were more glaring, however, than his two at Wake Forest last week. In the days since, he has been so vilified on message boards that he felt compelled to apologize to fans for the miscues in another report earlier this week.
But head coach Paul Johnson doesn’t believe the onus for apology rests at the feet of the 19-year-old.
“I think a lot of those guys got pre-hyped before the thing started and everybody wants to compare him to the (player) who was the first player taken in the draft,” Johnson said Sunday night on his weekly post-game teleconference. “I may coach another 31 years and not have another receiver like (Thomas). They don’t come along.
“So the comparisons for everybody trying to compare (Hill) to (Thomas) is unfair to him. And being a young guy, he’s tried to accept that role and live up to the billing. He’s put a lot of pressure on himself instead of just relaxing and playing.”
Hill agreed, and hopes to be more loose this Saturday when the Yellow Jackets host Virginia.
“I just needed to stop pressing. Go out there and relax. Go out and have fun,” Hill said.
That isn’t limited to his approach during games, either. All this week, he has tried to take such focus into his workouts.
“I just need to take it day-by-day and work on just that day. Then the next day,” Hill said. “Then, when it’s gametime, I need to work on each and every play. That first play? That’s what I need to work on for now and play it like it’s my last.”
Just before he spoke with a reporter Tuesday afternoon, Hill walked back to Bobby Dodd Stadium from Rose Bowl practice fields with Johnson at his side. Hill said the two were discussing some of the confidence issues that have made it difficult for him to concentrate these first few games, and made avoiding distractions even harder.
“Stephen Hill should be worried about being Stephen Hill and nothing else,” Johnson said.
So who is the real Stephen Hill?
“Fast, can go up and get the ball with the hands and is not worried about what people are saying,” Hill said.
Perhaps Saturday can be a welcome back party.