Ohio State linebacker Justin Hilliard has overcome much to reach pinnacle
Against Clemson in the Sugar Bowl, Justin Hilliard made pivotal plays in helping the Ohio State football team reach the national championship game against Alabama.
It was the kind of impact the linebacker expected to make when he arrived as a five-star recruit from Cincinnati St. Xavier.
Hilliard enrolled at Ohio State right after the Buckeyes won the 2014 national title, going through Alabama in the Sugar Bowl before toppling Oregon. Back then, he had a clear plan for how his Ohio State career would go: He would play three years, help the Buckeyes to that many national titles and then head to the NFL.
That plan, however, didn’t go as envisioned. Multiple serious injuries almost derailed his Ohio State career. He has been in Columbus for twice the amount of time he expected. Even this year, he was a part-time player until COVID-19 forced teammates out of the lineup late in the year.
But Hilliard’s faith in himself and his ability didn’t waver, and he has become a crucial part of an improving defense that meets No. 1 Alabama in the College Football Playoff title game on Monday night in Miami Gardens, Florida.
That’s what made the victory over the Tigers on New Year's Day so sweet.
“After the game, the first person I celebrated with was coach Coombs,” Hilliard said, referring to defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs, a fellow Cincinnatian who was his main recruiter. “He said, ‘Who would have thought when I was getting recruited that we would be back here six years later?’
“Just reflecting back on the journey — some of the ups and downs this team went through, the linebackers went through, the defense went through, I went through — to get back to this point right now is just amazing.”
Hilliard's ambitious plan sidetracked
Football wasn’t Hilliard’s primary sport growing up.
“He was good at it,” his mother, Diane, said, “but his favorite growing up was baseball. He pitched and played pretty much everywhere else.”
But his football talent became obvious to experts, if not himself. Justin’s brother, C.J., who is 19 months older, went on a recruiting visit to Indiana University after his junior season before signing with Ohio University. Justin, then a sophomore, tagged along.
“I’m there to just hang out my brother as he gets recruited and everything, so I didn't even put on a name tag,” Hilliard said. “And then the defensive coordinator — I forget who it was — comes up to me and offers me a scholarship.
“I was literally speechless. I didn’t even say anything for a whole minute because I thought he was kidding. After that, I started taking football much more seriously.”
Hilliard became the highest-ranked prospect in a 2015 Buckeyes recruiting class that included first-round NFL picks Joe Burrow, Denzel Ward and Damon Arnette, as well as current NFL players Dre’Mont Jones and K.J. Hill.
While others in his recruiting class flourished, Hilliard’s career looked like it might never get off the ground — or out of the trainers' room. He suffered a torn meniscus in his knee the first week of training camp, the first of an unfortunate series of injuries. His first two seasons ended because of biceps tears, one in each arm.
He was a role player in 2018 and was hoping for a breakthrough in 2019.
“The first three years here was such a wakeup call,” Hilliard said. “I would say they were some of the lowest points I've been through in my life, just because I never lowered those expectations for myself. That's what made it so hard. That made it tough to sleep at night because of how much I cared about football. I knew what I could do, and I just was so far away from that.”
Ohio State football:Justin Hilliard makes memorable season debut for Ohio State in win over Rutgers
But he had a bit of an epiphany after those three years. He maintained his expectations, but he decided, with time running out on his career, to allow himself to just have fun playing the game.
That would be tested last year. Early in spring practice, he tore his Achilles tendon.
“The first thing that went through my head is that was probably my last practice and the last rep I'll ever play football,” he said.
For two weeks, he contemplated not attempting a comeback. But he talked with defensive co-coordinator Greg Mattison, who coaches strongside linebackers, and head coach Ryan Day. They shared their vision of how he could contribute if he did come back.
“Once I heard that, I was full steam ahead,” Hilliard said.
The Achilles rehab was the hardest and most painful of all his injuries, but he returned to play the entire 2019 season. The NCAA granted him a rare sixth year of eligibility because of the two missed seasons, and he was counting on having a big 2020 season for a chance to finally fulfill his potential.
Then came the pandemic, the months of uncertainty about the season and the adversity he and his fellow Buckeyes had to endure. Hilliard traveled with the team to Penn State, only to be forced to sit out because of what proved to be a false COVID-19 test.
With three other experienced senior linebackers in Pete Werner, Tuf Borland and Baron Browning, Hilliard again was a part-time player for most of the season. But it was clear he had improved. When Borland had to miss the game at Michigan State and Browning the Northwestern game because of COVID, Hilliard got his chance to play full time.
He took advantage. He had a crucial interception and recovered a fumble with a team-high nine tackles against Northwestern. He continued his strong play against Clemson. Twice, he stuffed the Tigers with tackles that prevented first downs.
“He’s playing some of the best ball on the defense,” linebackers coach Al Washington said. “He’s playing with an unbelievable motor. He’s becoming an impact player.”
That’s exactly what Hilliard expected all along.
“A lot of people hit me up almost surprised that I can still play at that level,” he said. “I promised myself after I tore my Achilles that I if wasn’t feeling like I can still play at the level I wanted and achieve those high expectations for myself, I wasn’t going to keep playing.”
Justin Hilliard 'epitome of character'
To Washington, Hilliard is the embodiment of what the Buckeyes have become this year.
“He's the epitome of character,” Washington said. “Everything he's been through — injuries, setbacks, you name it — and throughout the whole process, he's really never been one to feel sorry for himself or make excuses. He just stayed in the fight.”
Hilliard, 23, not only has earned his bachelor’s degree in marketing but also a master’s in consumer sciences. He was elected captain this year, a rarity for a player not expected to start.
“He’s a guy that’s pretty much seen it all — the good, the bad, the ugly,” Borland said. “He’s fought through so much on and off the field, and to see the success that he’s having, it’s awesome.
“Justin is an unbelievable player, but he’s an unbelievable person as well. To see the success that he’s having, one, nobody is surprised, because of how hard he works, and two, he deserves everything that comes his way because he’s a warrior — always has been — and he's getting everything he deserves.”
Hilliard prides himself on being well-rounded, something he said his mother encouraged him to be. He likes reading books, learned to play musical instruments and enjoys spending time outdoors, particularly hiking.
Washington said he will use Hilliard’s story to teach his 4-year-son about overcoming adversity.
“It’s not a Disney movie,” Washington said. “It’s real life. There’s doubt, fear, frustration, setbacks. It is very important people understand that so when they go through those tough times, they don’t think it’s out of the ordinary. Justin is living proof of that.”
After the season, Hilliard will pursue the NFL, jokingly dismissing the idea of returning for what might be an unprecedented seventh year. (The NCAA isn’t counting this season toward eligibility.) A pro career is certainly much more realistic than it was before this year.
But first, there’s the championship game. Ohio State hasn’t been in the title game since the 2014 season, and Hilliard has been around for all those successful seasons that fell short of this point.
He remembers as a recruit watching the confetti fall on Ezekiel Elliott and Joey Bosa after their title. He knows how emotional it would be for him, especially given all he has endured.
“He does not give up,” Diane Hilliard said. “I always tell him that he’s my hero. I want to be like him when I grow up.”