Florida International U

FIU Panthers’ E.J. Hilliard relishes pressure to perform

This story starts on VHS in Liberty City and continues on smartphones everywhere, making an open-ended feather float through time and across space in the manner of Forrest Gump. Which is appropriate for FIU quarterback E.J. Hilliard, getting his first non-injury prompted start today against East Carolina.

“GUMP” stands for “Great Under Major Pressure.” You can find it all over social media – a Dolphins fan declared Cameron Wake’s sack for a game-winning safety Thursday was GUMP. Liberty University linebacker Diavante Brown, from South Carolina, tweeted on Friday that he was GUMP. So did a high school quarterback from California.

Usage on Hilliard’s MySpace and Facebook accounts expanded to Twitter last year after, Hilliard said, Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater suggested they should really do something with GUMP. And that skated across Twitter and Instagram. You can find photos of breast cancer research pink bracelets with GUMP on them. Bridgewater’s mother was diagnosed with breast cancer several years ago.

The two quarterbacks have been using GUMP since their Northwestern High days.

“I used to watch the move Forrest Gump when I was a kid. I used to watch it a lot. My parents started hiding the tape,” Hilliard said. “When I got to high school, I used to make a lot of Forrest Gump jokes. Teddy started calling me ‘Gump.’ We just came up with the slogan Great Under Major Pressure because we had a lot of pressure coming from Northwestern being that Jacory [Harris] had just left and he was an undefeated quarterback. We knew they expected the same from both of us.”

(Hilliard’s favorite line from the movie is All-America football player Forrest asking President Kennedy if he could use the restroom after pounding 15 Dr. Peppers.)

This is Hilliard’s first start not prompted by a Jake Medlock injury. FIU coach Ron Turner considered going to Hilliard as Medlock (11 of 26 for 128 yards, two interceptions and one touchdown) struggled through Saturday’s 197-yard offensive performance in the 23-7 loss to Louisiana Tech.

“He’s had a good week. He’s had several good weeks leading into this. That’s why we made the move to give him an opportunity to show what he can do,” Turner said. “He’s worked hard. He’s got a really good grasp of the offense. He’s got to take that to the game. I do not expect him to play perfectly. I do expect him to run the offense, have great eye discipline, great techniques and fundamentals.”

Hilliard facing 5-2 East Carolina, the preseason Conference USA favorite, continues the trend of being asked to perform under major pressure at FIU.

2012: As a true freshman, his first college plays come as the second-half quarterback against eventual Sugar Bowl champion Louisville after an injury takes out Medlock. Hilliard starts the next two games, at Louisiana-Lafayette, one of the Sun Belt’s toughest places to play, and, five days later, at home against Arkansas State. He starts the season finale against Louisiana-Monroe. Another Medlock injury throws him into a 14-6 loss to Western Kentucky for one play – the final play, from the Western 21-yard line. Hilliard got hit and fumbled before he could throw.

All the above mentioned opponents went to bowl games.

2013: Starts against No. 7-ranked Louisville at Louisville with Medlock suffering from a concussion. Two weeks after that 72-0 annihilation, Hilliard came off the bench against Southern Mississippi late in the second quarter after Medlock got knocked wobbly with FIU down 16-14. FIU eventually won 24-23.

“I don’t see myself having to take all the burden,” Hilliard said. “My center, Donald [Senat] he was my center in high school. He helps me a lot with all the protection calls, some of the checks. I trust all the receivers, running backs, coaching staff.”

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