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Justin Hilliard keeps fighting adversity, finally shining for Buckeyes

Justin Hilliard-Ohio State-Buckeyes-Ohio State football
Ohio State linebacker Justin Hilliard is back from injury and again helping the Buckeyes. (Birm/Lettermen Row)

Ohio State Football

Justin Hilliard keeps fighting adversity, finally shining for Buckeyes

COLUMBUS — Justin Hilliard is at it again for Ohio State, putting highlights on tape, as the football euphemism goes.

It was fair to wonder at one point if it would ever happen again.

“It means so much, having great moments,” said the Ohio State fifth-year senior linebacker who has fought back from three major injuries in his college career. “At times when I was down and [teammates] were picking me up, it means so much.”

And talk about a flashback – coming out of Xavier High School in Cincinnati long ago, his recruiting video was chock full of scenes of him recognizing plays then, in an instant, accelerating to the scene with zeal and a sure-tackling ethic. Just Google it.

That’s why he was considered a five-star prospect, according to the 247sports composite, and the No.1 overall prospect in the state in the 2015 recruiting cycle. When he committed to Ohio State it was major news, and seemingly the start of yet another star-destined career for a Buckeye.

But funny things happened to him after that, and not in the ha-ha, LOL sense. He suffered a torn bicep muscle one year, then had the other one tear the next. Then last year he suffered a torn Achilles. All of them needed surgery to repair, and all, as can be imagined, were debilitating.

Justin Hilliard-Ohio State-Buckeyes-Ohio State football

Ohio State linebacker Justin Hilliard has battled back from an Achilles injury for the Buckeyes. (Birm/Lettermen Row)

Somehow in between he managed to make a few noteworthy plays, primarily on special teams. It was there, for example, his desire to be the first to hit the kickoff return man has never been in question. He yearned, however, to be a regular part of the defense.

Fast forward to the past two games and behold: Hilliard played regularly and made some key stops in the Ohio State romp at Northwestern. Last week in the seminal, 38-7 thump of Wisconsin, he was an integral part of the 4-4-3 defense — schemed by coordinator Greg Mattison and Jeff Hafley, and linebackers coach Al Washington – that the Buckeyes unveiled at the start to confound what had been the Big Ten’s leading rusher Jonathan Taylor.

Early in that game Hilliard fired off from the edge on a Wisconsin wide play, beat the blocker to the spot and nailed Taylor for a loss that helped set the tone for the rest of the rainy afternoon. It was like one of those Hilliard high school highlight plays, but this time it was college vintage.

“Justin Hilliard, the story of him playing the way he played and being able to step up in a game like that and help us is a story that really isn’t being told for whatever reason,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said. “But this is, like you said, a guy with today’s day and age with portals and everything else, he stuck through it. He worked through injuries, he worked through playing time issues, and then he steps up in a huge moment for us to beat Wisconsin and plays really well and makes some big-time tackles.

“That goes to show you what kind of a kid Justin Hilliard is. He’s got character, he’s got perseverance, everything about him is great. He’s helped us on special teams for years, but now he’s able to step up into that role and make those kind of plays for the team.”

Justin Hilliard-Ohio State-Buckeyes-Ohio State football

Ohio State linebacker Justin Hilliard again has reasons to smile for the Buckeyes. (Birm/Lettermen Row)

Hilliard knows the story from the inside out, and the feeling that came along with finally being a major factor in an important game.

“It was awesome … it’s such a special moment,” Hilliard said. “Because these coaches, the support staff, the teammates I have, they have been on me for about seven months to come back from that [Achilles] injury.”

The tear came as spring drills started back in March. He had been primed to make a move and assert himself finally in the competition for a starting job.

“When that happened, it was a tough week,” Hilliard said. “I didn’t even know if I was going to come back for my fifth year before this year. … I didn’t know if a comeback was even possible. People don’t come back from an Achilles for like 12 months.”

Actually, his teammate and fellow linebacker Tuf Borland pulled off a similar trick last year when he rose from a spring Achilles injury and subsequent surgery to play through the season. Now Hilliard has done the same.

“My teammates, support staff, coaches all stayed on me,” said Hilliard, giving particular praise to trainer Adam Stewart and the plan he laid out to make it happen. “It’s been a process, and I appreciate everybody.”

As he reminded, to recover from an injury is one thing.

“You’ve got to get back to where you were, and even better,” Hilliard said. “So the coaches, especially coach Washington and coach Mattison, have been on me. And it’s starting to show up.”

It’s right there on the film.

Tim May

Tim May brings decades of experience to his work on the Ohio State beat. The award-winning journalist retired from his post at the Columbus Dispatch after the 2018 season but remains a fixture around the Buckeyes and continues to loom as an authority on the program.

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