San Luis Obispo High football team’s secondary calls themselves “The Sharks.”
But of that group, only one player has been designated the name of a species.
Senior cornerback Nick Hill is called “Great White,” a nickname that is well deserved thus far this season for his predatory-like instincts in picking off passes. The senior has the second-most picks in the CIF-Southern Southern section with seven, according to MaxPreps.com.
That ranking includes players from high schools throughout the section in various divisions. Only one player had eight interceptions as of this week.
“He really gained a lot of experience by starting all last year as a junior,” San Luis Obispo coach David Kelley said. “He prepares well and he has a great feel for the game.”
Hill’s football evolution to becoming the county’s top thief on defense, and among the best in the state, began as a quarterback in San Luis Obispo’s youth football league as a middle school student.
He also played backup quarterback as a freshman on San Luis Obispo’s junior varsity team before breaking his arm and sitting out the season.
Since then, Hill has focused primarily on the defensive end.
“Playing quarterback really helped me to understand the game,” Hill said. “It helped me to understand the concepts.”
Last year, his first on varsity, Hill started each of the team’s contests as a defensive back, snagging one interception.
His coach points out that he was beaten on about four to five touchdown passes last year and learned from those plays how to better defend.
The idea is to break up plays first before thinking about an interception, Hill said, noting that sometimes the best game for a cornerback is one in which he’s hardly noticed.
“The best game you might have is no play at all,” Hill said. “You get no recognition. That’s fine. It’s not something I worry about. The fact that I’ve had a lot of plays this year is nice. I’ve seen both sides of that.”
The senior who studies game tape meticulously often is pitted against the opposing team’s best receiver on Friday nights. And he has seized his opportunities against them.
Against rival Paso Robles, Hill snagged two interceptions in the first half to help the Tigers build a large lead in a win to breathe life into their season. They took that matchup 38-16 at a point in the season when San Luis Obispo was 2-3 and 0-1 in the PAC 7.
Then against Pioneer Valley the following week on Oct. 5, Hill pulled in three interceptions, including a game-sealing 50-yard interception for a touchdown late in the fourth quarter.
A week later on Oct. 12, Hill intercepted a pass against Righetti in the first half that he ran back for a 44-yard touchdown. The score turned out to be vital in a 38-35 thriller.
“I try to visualize and envision making big plays,” Hill said. “Once I intercept it and get space in front of me, I get excited.”
Fellow defensive back Jordan Knauer said he’s seen a more experienced player this year in Hill.
“He really is reading the other team’s quarterback well,” Knauer said. “His preparation is really solid and that’s paying off. He’s the Great White.”
Hill credits a strong defensive line and linebacker corps that has put pressure on the quarterback to help force turnovers his way, citing the Pioneer Valley game in particular for hurried throws by the quarterback.
Playing zone defense, Hill said his goal is to read the quarterback and the receivers in his area. Playing man to man, Hill said he’s sticking to the receiver’s hip and mirroring his every move is the key.
“Quickness and backpedaling is something we work on every day,” Hill said.
To get into the zone, he tends to listen to rap and rock on his headset before games, such as the White Stripes’ song “Seven Nation Army” and other inspiring tunes to get himself pumped up.
“Gotta have something with a beat,” Hill said with a grin.