Following a frustrating loss to the Maryland Terrapins, Texas Longhorns junior cornerback Holton HIll had tears in his eyes.
But the tears weren’t necessarily from the sting of defeat — it was about how far Hill has come over the last year.
“Coach, thank you for believing in me,” he told Tom Herman, a statement accompanied by a hug.
An honorable mention All-Big 12 performer as a freshman in 2015, Hill struggled as a sophomore and fell out of the starting lineup in all but three games and only appeared in five overall.
He was one of the poster boys for the struggles afflicting a Texas secondary that regressed in multiple dimensions under the tutelage of defensive backs coach Clay Jennings.
On Saturday, however, Hill was in the right place at the right time when a pass deflected off a Maryland wide receiver on the first possession of the game. After finishing the interception, the Houston Lamar product returned it 31 yards for a touchdown.
TOUCHDOWN TEXAS: Holton Hill with a 31-yard Pick Six return. #Hookem pic.twitter.com/lJ0YVP6sj3— Hookem Football (@hornsfootball) September 2, 2017
The interception return for a touchdown was the first defensive score for the Longhorns since Hill returned another interception the distance against the Cowboys in 2015.
And Hill didn’t stop there, either — when senior defensive tackle Poona Ford sliced through one of the A gaps on a Maryland field goal attempt and blocked the kick, Hill was once again in the first place at the right time. This time he returned the ball 65 yards for a touchdown.
Here's Holton "touchdown machine" Hill returning the blocked FG. Does anything surprise you anymore? pic.twitter.com/XB1k1VIZI1— Ezra Siegel (@SiegelEzra) September 2, 2017
“I saw green ahead of me, and I just went,” Hill said. “I’m going to give a shout-out to Poona Ford. Luckily Poona got the block and it was right in front of me. I took it right to the house.”
Hill’s blocked field goal return was the first of its kind by a Texas player since Cedric Griffin’s effort in 2002 against Tulane, a span of 188 games.
And no other player in the FBS has returned an interception and a blocked field goal for touchdowns in the last 10 years.
Now back as a starter at cornerback, Hill also had an impressive game in run support and in coverage, finishing second on the team with eight tackles, all of them solo.
Not bad for a player who was also dealing with the impact of Hurricane Harvey on his hometown. Fortunately, Hill’s family home wasn’t impacted by the widespread flooding in the area, which allowed his parents to watch their son turn in an historic performance on Saturday.
“I wasn’t able to be down there with my family and stuff, so I had a chip on my shoulder from that,” Hill said.
Redshirt freshman Reggie Hemphill-Mapps was also a bright spot for the Longhorns.
Like Hill, Hemphill-Mapps is from the Houston area and had the recent tragedy on his mind. Like Hill, the promising young player didn’t let it become a distraction.
The biggest play by Hemphill-Mapps came during the third quarter, when Texas was working on recovering from a 30-14 halftime deficit already reduced by senior wide receiver Armanti Foreman’s 33-yard touchdown reception.
Back as the punt returner, Hemphill-Mapps caught the ball at the Texas 9-yard line, made one defender miss, then found the sideline as junior linebacker Malik Jefferson helped him out with a crushing block to free him.
Do NOT punt it to Reggie Hemphill-Mapps. Longhorns back in the game pic.twitter.com/v1Q7kFyaxL— Ezra Siegel (@SiegelEzra) September 2, 2017
The 91-yard return was the longest by a freshman in Big 12 Conference history, the third-longest in school history, and the first punt return for a touchdown since Daje Johnson scored against Rice in 2015.
Following an impressive Orange-White game performance and plenty of buzz during fall camp, Hemphill-Mapps lived up to expectations as a receiver, catching seven passes for 69 yards. Those seven receptions tied for the team lead.
And so in a game that featured plenty of negatives, one reclamation project and a wide receiver seeing his first game action in burnt orange and white provided some hope for the future.