Evanston’s Brandon Hilliard blossoming into playmaker role

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GLENVIEW — The football season is just six weeks old, and Evanston senior Brandon Hilliard has already tied three of the school’s single-game records.

Hilliard hauled in 10 passes in Evanston’s 24-7 loss to Highland Park on Sept. 12 to match the number of receptions Jody Ellis had against New Trier in 2003. Then, in a 47-42 loss to Niles West, Hilliard scored six touchdowns — three rushing, three receiving — to tie the record for total touchdowns Rendell Massie set in 2010, and the record for receiving touchdowns Montell Wilburn set in 1996.

This level of success is something Hilliard didn’t see coming at the beginning of the season.

“I had no idea that I would be a huge part [of the offense],” he said. “I thought I would be a normal wide receiver like everybody else. I never would have expected it.”

Hilliard is undersized at 5-7 and 155 pounds, but his best attributes are his speed, hands and quickness. He’s had several long receptions this season, including a 55-yard touchdown against Highland Park, a 61-yard touchdown against Niles West and a 59-yard gain in Evanston’s 49-28 loss to Glenbrook South this past week.

He’s also shifty and effective after he receives the ball. That’s one reason why Evanston’s coaching staff felt comfortable putting him at running back against Niles West, the first time he has played that position during his career. Hilliard responded by rushing 10 times for 52 yards and three scores against the Wolves. He had five carries for 39 yards against Glenbrook South.

“Offensive football is about getting the ball to your playmakers, and Brandon’s a playmaker for us,” Evanston coach Mike Burzawa said. “We definitely, going into the season, wanted to find creative ways to get him the ball, and it started with one of our goal-line sets. From that point, we were able to move him around and try to get him the ball because he’s a playmaker.”

That became abundantly clear against Niles West, and defenses have begun to focus on him.

Hilliard — who also plays hockey for the Wildkits — said he noticed more defensive attention against Glenbrook South, as the Titans defended him with tighter coverage.

Glenbrook South’s defensive backs couldn’t keep the ball out of Hilliard’s hands — he finished with eight receptions for 101 yards — but they limited his speed and elusiveness, not allowing him to break tackles and make big plays. The lone exception was a coverage breakdown where Hilliard got free down the field and hauled in a 59-yard catch.

“We really focused on him a lot,” Glenbrook South senior linebacker Quinn Conaghan said. “We’d follow him around, make sure we knew where he was. He’s a good player. He’s really quick. He’s a good athlete, and he can do it all.”

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