COLUMBUS — Justin Hilliard has been in spring camp a few times at Ohio State.
What’s one more time for the soon-to-be sixth-year senior from Cincinnati? After all, he’s already fought his way through injuries during his first five years before finding a spot on the field last season
After an Achilles injury last spring, Hilliard battled back to find a role against heavy-run offenses, when the Buckeyes deployed four linebackers onto the field. His game-changing interception against Penn State was the highlight, but he made a handful of plays. Following the season, questions began to come up, though, as Ohio State entered the offseason in a scholarship pinch and with a bevy of talented linebackers alongside Hilliard. Was a transfer in order or was Hilliard going to stick around?
“I really haven’t thought about that at all,” Hilliard said Wednesday, seemingly shutting down any ideas.
It’s always curious why Hilliard would ever want to leave. Sure, he could certainly go somewhere else and immediately start rather than stay in a rotation like he will at Ohio State. But he likes his situation.
Hilliard’s career has been turbulent. His five-star rating made him the highest-ranked player in Urban Meyer’s talented 2015 recruiting class that featured Denzel Ward, Joe Burrow, Branden Bowen, K.J. Hill and Mike Weber, among others. Once he got on campus, the talent equated at the college level and he had trouble finding the field — primarily because the injuries kept coming for Hilliard. It seemed like he would never live up to his billing.
Last season was a turning point, and it all came together with a game-changing fourth-quarter pick against Penn State.
“That was such a special moment,” Hilliard said. “After the game, I had time to reflect on all the relationships I’ve built and all the work I put in to get to that moment, so that moment will last forever.”
While all this was going on, his sixth year of eligibility was granted, and Hilliard is now ready for one final season with Ohio State.
“The whole situation last year, I was just so glad I was able to find out [about the sixth-year waiver] mid-season, so I was able to enjoy those last relationships with guys in my class, and then coming back this year is just such a blessing,” Hilliard said. “All the injuries I’ve been through, this opportunity, I feel like, is so good for me.”
The potential for more opportunities like those from last season linger, as linebackers coach Al Washington and the Buckeyes search for ways to put Hilliard and the seemingly endless options at each linebacker spot on the field. Hilliard has been playing strong-side linebacker so far, but each of the Buckeyes are versatile enough to make plays at each spot. Hilliard is a perfect example of that.
“We have to do a really good job of trying to create ways to think outside the conventional defense and put guys in roles so that they can do what they do best,” Washington said. “That is what we’re doing now.”
What Hilliard is doing right now is training to be the best sixth-year player he can be. After an up-and-down first five seasons, maybe the sixth time is a charm, when he finally plays a key role for the Silver Bullets defense. There certainly have been plenty of conversations surrounding those possibilities.
“It was just conversations on what it would mean to do a sixth year, what it would take rehab-wise to get my body right and all that,” he said about the talks with his family when mulling the sixth-year. “It didn’t take long for me to realize it was an obvious decision for me to come back.”
The highest-ranked, last standing member of his recruiting class, Hilliard began to finally sense he was making an impact on the Ohio State defense a season ago.
Eligible for one more year, now fully healthy and feeling great about the potential of the defense, Justin Hilliard is building off his lengthy experience and game-breaking plays.
“Plays like last year kind of give me the motivation and the confidence that I can still do this, I can still get back out there,” he said.
“I still have those high expectations I came in with.”