By Bill Coats

When Tye Hill throws a draft party, he throws a draft party.

Hill invited his entire hometown to gather with him last April 29, and a good portion of the population showed up. "If it wasn't the whole town, it was most of it," Hill said. "I wouldn't share that day with anybody else but my family and friends and people of my town."

Understand that St. George, S.C., has only 2,100 residents. And that Hill, selected by the Rams with the 15th overall selection in the draft, is the three-stoplight town's first homegrown professional athlete. So, the excitement was understandable, even before he signed a five-year contract that could net him as much as $12.6 million.

Sunday figures to be another big day in the "low country," as the locals refer to that part of the state between Charleston and Columbia. Hill will get his first taste of NFL regular-season action when the Rams play Denver at the Edward Jones Dome.

"It's going to be a packed house, and emotions are going to be high," Hill said. "I feed off the crowd, so I know how I'm going to feel. I'm going to have to calm myself down."

Hill, a 5-foot-10, 185-pound cornerback from Clemson,

won't start against the Broncos, but he'll be busy enough. Hill will back up Travis Fisher on the left side, plus he'll come in as the fifth defensive back in passing situations.

Secondary coach Willy Robinson said Hill's transition to pro football remains a work in progress.

"Game awareness, route recognition, formation recognition ... all those little things that happen so much faster at this level than at the college level," Robinson said. "Travis Fisher and Fakhir Brown (the other first-team corner) really are doing a great job silently, leadership-wise, with that kid in staying on top of him."

Fisher, recalling the help he received as a rookie from

Aeneas Williams, has been a constant mentor for Hill. "Tye's a competitor, so that's not a problem," Fisher said. "He's really catching on to what it takes to be a professional and how to approach practice and be serious about it."

Hill, a former Atlantic Coast Conference 60-meter champion, acknowledged that at Clemson, he could make up for technique errors with speed and athleticism. But that ability prompted some bad habits, too.

"In college, if you're good, you kind of separate yourself from the rest of the competition," said Hill, 24. "Therefore, you don't really have to work as hard, and sometimes you kind of get lackadaisical. ... Here, everybody is good, from first-stringers to fifth-stringers. The competition level never dies, no matter who's in there."

Let down in the NFL, he concluded, and you're sure to get burned.

Hill struggled early with the Rams. Expecting "more of a walk-through type of thing," he said he "thought my lungs were going to explode" after his first minicamp practice. In training camp, he was implored to get more physical with opponents and improve his tackling.

"He's got to work to keep his hands on receivers," Robinson said. "It's not a run-and-bump type technique for us as much as it is getting people re-routed."

Asked to evaluate his preseason, Hill said: "There was some good and there was some bad. It's a learning experience, definitely. I got a lot of work in, and I've got a lot to work on. But I'm very comfortable."

And extremely pleased that the regular season finally has arrived.

"Oh, yeah, I've been happy since we broke camp," Hill said, laughing. "I'm just not a camp guy. I don't think anybody

really likes it, but I get into a little more of a depressed mode when it comes around. I'm ready for opening day."

Although the Broncos' ground game is the Rams' major concern defensively, Denver can do damage through the air, too. Quarterback Jake Plummer's primary targets are Rod Smith and former Packer Javon Walker.

"To go up against them in the first game ... Rod Smith, he's probably going to be a Hall of Famer," Hill said. "It's not Kansas anymore. I've got to be on my P's and Q's. ... In the NFL, every down counts. When you think nothing is happening, that's when the band strikes up. I've learned that."

As a rookie cornerback and a slightly undersized one at that, Hill realizes Denver coach Mike Shanahan will challenge him. "People are going to run at a corner that's not necessarily got the size; you're going to get tested there," Rams coach Scott Linehan said. "So he's got to show that he's willing to come up and make tackles."

And not let one misstep lead to another. Hill has been working on developing that mantra.

"You've got to be able to bounce back," he said. "You mess up ... hey, don't let it affect the next play. That's one thing I'm getting better at."

Actually, Fisher pointed out, Hill has made strides in several areas. "He's definitely grown," Fisher said. "He's learning the game, doing a great job of watching the guys that have been in the game for a while. He's picking up real quick."

On Sunday, Hill will begin to find out just how quick. The folks in St. George, S.C., will be watching closely. | 314-340-8189