Related Galleries


PITTSFORD — There are not enough hours in the day for the man with arguably the toughest teaching job on the Buffalo Bills’ coaching staff.

Bills receivers coach Ike Hilliard has 12 players in his meeting room and only two have more than one year of experience in the NFL. Nine of the 12 never have caught a pass for the Bills.

“This is the youngest group I’ve been around,” said Hilliard. “It’s harder, and it’s also a blessing. You have a lot of guys that just haven’t been in many situations. Those situations have to be created on the practice field. They have to be shown in the meeting room. There’s really not enough time to go through every situation that you’re going to face, so you do the best you can.”

The good news for Hilliard?

“There’s some talent in that room,” he said. “It’s probably one of the more talented rooms I’ve been around as a coach or as a player from top to bottom. We’re excited about that. We have to continue to grind on the details.”

Hilliard has the credentials to deal with young talent. The New York Giants drafted him seventh overall in the first round of the 1997 NFL Draft. He won a starting job as a rookie, although a neck injury cut short his first season. He caught 51 passes his second year and went onto catch 546 balls over 12 seasons.

Hilliard is in his fifth season as a coach. He came to the Bills after one season as receivers coach with the Washington Redskins.

He also has had a career path that has had numerous intersections with that of Bills coach Doug Marrone and offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett. The Bills’ offense is based in West Coast offensive principles, which emphasize quick, high-percentage passes and stretching the field horizontally as well as vertically.

Hilliard’s Giants coach was West Coast disciple Jim Fassel. The Giants’ offensive coordinator was Sean Payton, for whom Marrone worked in New Orleans. Hilliard played in Tampa for Jon Gruden for two years while Hackett was a quality control coach with the Bucs. He coached for two years under West Coast disciple Jay Gruden (Jon’s brother) with the fledgling United Football League. He coached under West Coast disciple Mike Shanahan with the Redskins.

“I spent two years with Nate, and that relationship is a big reason why I’m here,” Hilliard said. “I played in the West Coast offense 11 of my 12 years. I was fortunate to coach two years in the West Coast in the UFL. I transitioned to coaching right after I played in ’08. … I’ve been around a lot of great coaches who have taught me a lot.”

Receiver is one of the toughest positions at which to make an immediate impact in the NFL. It’s a long list of first-rounders who did little their first season.

The Bills are counting on a young cast at wideout to complement No. 1 receiver Stevie Johnson. Rookie Robert Woods, a second-round pick out of Southern California, and T.J. Graham, a third-round pick in 2012, are likely to be on the field a ton in the Bills’ three-receiver set. The Bills are hoping Marquise Goodwin, the Bills’ third-round pick this year, can contribute right away. So far he looks like he will be the fourth-ranked wideout on the team. Undrafted rookie Da’Rick Rogers, who has a body similar to that of former Bills star Eric Moulds, has a good chance to make the team if he has a good preseason.

The only other veteran on the roster with notable NFL experience is Brad Smith, an eighth-year pro who has caught only 60 passes over the past five seasons.

“Unless you have a unique trait or a size-speed combination, it’s really a little more difficult to come in and really dominate at that position,” Hilliard said. “The speed of the game is different. The players are better. You’re not going to have situations like in college where you have a guy beat by 20 yards. It’s a completely different situation.”

Nevertheless, Hilliard is as impressed as most other observers by how the young wideouts have looked so far.

Here’s his rundown:

On Woods: “Rob’s a stud. Woody’s a kid who’s polished. He understands angles. He understands the game. What’s great for him is he had some sort of West Coast background in college. So a lot of what he’s doing is carryover for him. We just have to incorporate in the way we’re going to do it. He has to learn our terminology and just go out and play. It’s a pretty seamless transition for him. He has a chance to be a pretty damn good ballplayer.”

On Graham: “Talking to T.J., he feels he didn’t really play good enough football last year. There are some technical things he really needed to work on. I think his progression to this point since we started the offseason, everybody around here is pretty pleased, including myself. He has to grow up and learn how to play the receiver position. I think he’s doing the best he can to pay attention to the details in order to do it.”

On Goodwin, the Olympic long jumper whose 40-yard dash time of 4.27 seconds is fastest on the team: “Flash has done well. It’s been a progression for him. He’s been labeled as a track guy, which I think you have to somewhat understand. But the kid is actually wired to play this game. He’s caught the ball extremely well since he’s been here. He brings a different element to the room. That elite trait in terms of being able to get down the field is something a defense is really going to have to pay attention to.”

On Rogers, who had to finish his college career at Tennessee Tech after being dismissed from Tennessee: “He’s literally a big kid who can run. I don’t know how else to describe it. He has great hands and an exceptional amount of talent. Everybody understands his story. The kid’s doing the best he can to get that put behind him. He’s done a nice job to this point. …We’ll play two games in 10 days. We’ll see what he can do against other competition. He’s done well to this point.”

Hilliard on his own challenge: “Like I said earlier about the learning curve for the young players, with every situation you really don’t have enough time in a day or a training camp to go over them all live on the field. To be able to cover those and get the learning curve where it needs to be as quickly as possible is the biggest key for us.”