The words were prescient. Unfortunately so.
After Ohio State linebacker Justin Hilliard felt soreness in his Achilles tendon early in spring practice in March, he asked Tuf Borland for his perspective.
Borland, also a linebacker, had suffered a ruptured Achilles the previous year.
“He described it as someone smacking you with a bat in your calf,” Hilliard said.
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Then, during a pass-rushing drill in a subsequent practice, Hilliard had the same feeling. While being blocked by running back J.K. Dobbins, he felt a nudge in his calf. It was sudden enough that he thought for a moment that he had been kicked by running backs coach Tony Alford, who was overseeing the drill.
As with Borland, Hilliard had suffered a torn Achilles. The injury cost the senior the rest of spring practice.
Less than two months from preseason camp, Hilliard provided an update on his recovery while speaking at a job fair for Ohio State football players, an initiative that began under former coach Urban Meyer.
In recent weeks, Hilliard said he had spent time jogging underwater and hoped to soon jog outside on a hard surface, followed by running in the next couple of months.
“If I keep progressing on the trajectory I’m on,” Hilliard said, “I feel confident that I’ll be back at some point in camp.”
His biggest goal was to beat Borland’s recovery time of six months. Hilliard knew the length off the top of his head. Borland was hurt in March but was back for the 2018 season opener. Hilliard referred to Borland’s response to the injury as the “gold standard.”
For Hilliard, his Achilles tear was the latest in a line of setbacks. Earlier, he had been limited by biceps injuries, dampening some of the expectations for the former five-star linebacker from Cincinnati St. Xavier.
Some of the injuries changed his perspective, and he saw more value from the career options presented at the fairs. He never thought football was guaranteed.
Hilliard, who graduated in May with a bachelor’s degree in marketing, said he was interested in sales.
“I still have the goal to keep playing,” he said, “but at the same time, in the back of my mind, I start to prepare for life after football.”
Last season, Hilliard was mostly healthy as a reserve linebacker, appearing in 12 games. Also used on special teams, he finished with a career-high 12 tackles.