A PERIODIC LOOK AT SOME OF THE MOST INTRIGUING RISING STARS
One of the NFL's top young wideouts plays with a chip on his shoulder and a prayer cloth beneath his left thigh pad. He often sounds wiser than his 23 years, such as when he discusses the rash of NFL players arrested this summer—"Trouble is easy to get into but hard to get out of"—but then he admits to being a clown, who plans to "act a fool" on the field this season. He has been timed at 4.34 seconds over 40 yards, and despite his small stature (he's 5'9" and weighs just 178 pounds), he can make vast quantities of food disappear with similar speed.
Fact is, T.Y. Hilton does most things fast. Which is why it's no surprise that he's on an accelerated track to stardom.
As a rookie with the Colts last season he led all first-year wideouts in touchdown catches (seven) and average yards per catch (17.2), ranked second in yards receiving (861) and tied for third in receptions (50). He came on so strong that over the final seven games, he had more yards (506 to 424) and more TD catches (five to two) than Reggie Wayne, his mentor and Pro Bowl teammate.
"People would say it's too early for me to use that word: greatness," says Hilton, whose given name is Eugene. (He was called Little Ty, after his father, Tyrone, and that nickname was eventually shortened to T.Y.) "But by great I [mean that I] want to be special in this game. I had an incredible rookie year—incredible stats, more yards than a couple of guys I look up to. But I feel I can only get better. I've got Reggie in my corner, and any questions I have, he's going to answer. He's going to give me the key I need to open the door to be great, to be a Hall of Famer, to be special. The game is slowing down for me, and I feel good."
That might sound cocky, but spend time with Hilton and you see a far more down-to-earth, hardworking and even humble young man. (When told he could pick any restaurant in his hometown of Miami to conduct an interview for this story, he chose Red Lobster.) He blesses his meals before eating, praises his teammates for helping him succeed and treads cautiously on questions about becoming a No. 1 receiver because he considers the topic to be disrespectful to Wayne.
But it's a topic that's going to be difficult to avoid much longer. Looking back, it's laughable that 12 receivers were taken ahead of Hilton, whose stock fell because of a quadriceps injury that kept him out of the Senior Bowl and prevented him from running at the scouting combine. There was also concern that because of his size, he might be fragile or unable to consistently escape press coverage at the line of scrimmage. Never mind that he had been one of the nation's most dangerous all-purpose threats at Florida International, where he had 24 TD receptions, seven rushing scores and six touchdowns on returns—Hilton had to wait and wait for his phone to ring on draft day. He was O.K. until he saw Jacksonville use the 70th pick on Brian Anger. A punter.
Finally, the Colts traded for the 92nd pick and took Hilton. As a third-round pick he was all but guaranteed a spot on the roster, but he approached the season as if he were the 54th man on a 53-man roster. "A lot of times young guys come in with wide eyes and don't know their way around," says Colts safety Antoine Bethea. "T.Y. wasn't your typical rookie. I'm not going to say he was like a seasoned vet, but he was like a third- or fourth-year guy in the way he carried himself on and off the field. Very straitlaced and focused."
Motivated by his plunge and protected by the prayer cloth he wears over the quadriceps that he tore in his final collegiate game, Hilton set a franchise rookie record with five 100-yard receiving games. His speed and elusiveness got him open, and when he got the ball in his hands, Hilton was one of the most dangerous players in the league; 45% of his yards came after the catch, a number topped only by Wes Welker, Randall Cobb and Michael Crabtree among the top 30 in receiving yards.
First-year wideouts typically struggle to make the transition from college. Of the 456 players drafted at the position from 1999 through 2012, only three reached 1,000 yards as a rookie: Michael Clayton, Anquan Boldin and A.J. Green. (Marques Colston also gained 1,000 yards, but he was undrafted.) "You have to earn the trust of your quarterback and offensive coordinator to feature you and get you targets," says Cardinals standout Larry Fitzgerald, who after being drafted third overall in 2004 had 58 catches for 780 yards and eight scores as a rookie. "No matter what conference you come from, you haven't seen the looks the defenses give and the sheer talent you face weekly in the NFL."
Hilton's early season was uneven at best. Because he still was recovering from the quad injury, the Colts held him out of the season opener. Playing for an offensive coordinator, Bruce Arians, with a long history of bringing receivers along slowly (most recently Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown in Pittsburgh), Hilton had just 18 catches and 253 yards in his first six games. But his season climbed above the turbulence on Nov. 4 against the Dolphins, whom he burned for 102 yards and a touchdown on six catches. Three weeks later, in a 20--13 win over Buffalo, he became the first player in the Colts' 60-year history to score on a reception and a punt return in the same game—with a trip to the locker room after a vicious high-low hit sandwiched between the touchdowns.
"[Quarterback] Andrew [Luck] really started trusting him down the stretch," says Arians, now the Cardinals' head coach. "People wanted to say Reggie's numbers were going down, but it was T.Y.'s numbers going up. He earned it. He's an extremely dedicated, hardworking kid in the classroom and on the field."
Earlier this month Luck flew to Miami for an intensive two-day passing session with Wayne and Hilton, among others. T.Y. still had his familiar braids and infectious laugh, but, says Luck, "You could tell there's a real purpose to what he's doing. He's figuring stuff out. There was a sense of urgency about him."
With good reason. The Colts offense could be even more dynamic this season. Arians liked to stretch the field with a vertical passing game. New coordinator Pep Hamilton—who worked with Luck at Stanford—believes strongly in establishing the running game. (Indy ranked 22nd a year ago, with an average of 104.4 yards.) If successful, particularly with the addition of former Giants back Ahmad Bradshaw, one by-product might be that the Colts' wideouts could see more one-on-one coverage, and Hilton doesn't believe there's a pair of cornerbacks who can consistently stop him and Wayne. "T.Y.'s football instincts are off the charts," says Hamilton. "Coaches have a great appreciation for players who get it the first time. T.Y. is very elusive and can create his own yards when he touches the football."
Hilton has spent significant time studying Wayne's footwork this off-season, trying to mimic how Wayne is able to come out of his cuts so quickly. "Whenever you can steal something from someone that great, a guy who's going to be a Hall of Famer, it's only going to make you better," says Hilton. "The way he gets in and out of his breaks at the top of his route, he does it like nobody else. Once I get that added ... smooth sailing."
Not that Hilton will ever take it easy. He has a Hall of Fame--caliber mentor, a young franchise quarterback and a fearlessness to publicly challenge himself. He wants to be the guy his team can go to in the final minutes. He wants to be a captain. He wants to be special. "The ones that become great feel that way," Arians says. "They're not afraid to say it's what they want. That's T.Y. He has the talent and the work ethic, and he came in with a hell of a quarterback. He has a chance."
On the Receiving End
Five second-year wideouts to watch
The first receiver taken in the 2012 draft, at No. 5, Blackmon had just 14 catches for 126 yards and no touchdowns in his first six games, then broke out over the final 10 with 50 receptions for 739 yards and five touchdowns. He should build on last season's strong finish once he returns from a four-game suspension for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy.
A virtual no-show for much of 2012, Floyd ended the season against the 49ers with eight catches for 166 yards and a touchdown. With Larry Fitzgerald commanding double teams and Carson Palmer bringing stability at quarterback, look for 2012's No. 13 pick to stretch the field and capitalize on Palmer's strong arm.
The undrafted free agent out of Temple had 39 catches for 584 yards and three touchdowns in 2012. Expect the speedy, 6'3", 200-pound flanker to get more touches this season after 2009 first-round pick Darrius Heyward-Bey was released in March.
Jeffery racked up 80 yards on three receptions in Week 1 against the Colts, but then missed six games because of a broken right hand and arthroscopic surgery on his right knee and finished the season with only 24 catches for 367 yards and three touchdowns. New coach Marc Trestman's West Coast offense should create new pass formations for the 6'3" 216-pounder.
Although he is suspended for the season's first two games after testing positive for codeine last February, Gordon should still put up big numbers. Last season he had 12 catches for 20 or more yards, including three of 40-plus yards. After tying for fourth among first-year wideouts in receptions (50) and ranking third in yards (805), he should only improve with Norv Turner taking over the offense.
For video of T.Y. Hilton talking about his relationship with Reggie Wayne, go to SI.com/mag or download SI's tablet edition, free to subscribers at SI.com/activate
ANDY LYONS/GETTY IMAGES
HILTON HONORS The burner from FIU led all rookies—and was fifth in the NFL—with 17.2 yards per reception.
DARRON CUMMINGS/AP (HILTON)
DOWN TO BUSINESS Luck (right) noticed that Hilton—while still full of smiles—has been especially focused this off-season.
FREDERICK BREEDON/GETTY IMAGES (BLACKMON)
NORM HALL/GETTY IMAGES (FLOYD)
THEARON W. HENDERSON/GETTY IMAGES (STREATER)
JONATHAN DANIEL/GETTY IMAGES (JEFFERY)
GREG NELSON FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (GORDON)