Under the Helmet with 2015 Linebacker Justin Hilliard
By Craig Henman
Cincinnati hasn't always been the friendliest city when it comes to sending Ohio State its best and brightest high school football prospects. In order to land the city's talent, the Buckeyes have to do battle with Notre Dame and the SEC, not to mention the rest of the Big Ten, and rarely are any of these battles easily won.
When Cincinnati-native Kerry Coombs was hired by Urban Meyer, however, he made it a point to say that if there was a kid in Cincinnati that Ohio State wanted, then that kid was going to become a Buckeye.
Having spent the vast majority of his life in the Queen City, and 15 years as Cincinnati Colerain's head coach, few men can speak to the talented players in that city as well as Coombs can.
One of these talented players is Justin Hilliard, a 6-foot-2, 225-pound junior linebacker from Cincinnati St. Xavier. Hilliard isn't only one of the top prospects in Cincinnati, he's also one of the top prospects in the entire state.
Hilliard is a four-star prospect in the class of 2015, and 247 even ranks him as Ohio's #1 prospect. He is rated as the #4 2015 outside linebacker in the nation. He holds offers from Ohio State, Notre Dame, Michigan, Iowa, Miami, Michigan State, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Penn State, Texas A&M and South Carolina, among many others.
Obviously, given his level of talent (and his location), the Buckeyes are in for a fight when it comes to landing the talented linebacker.
"Location will not be an issue for me," Hilliard told the-Ozone recently.
"I want to have a great relationship with the team’s position coach and also with the strength and conditioning coach. Those are the two people that you spend the majority of your time with."
Hilliard’s coach at St. Xavier, Steve Specht, believes that the Ohio State staff got off to a good start in that regard earlier this summer.
"He started to develop a relationship with Coach [Luke] Fickell this summer when he attended camp and Ohio State finally offered," Specht said. "He enjoyed the trip and really enjoyed spending time with Urban Meyer and company."
Hilliard already has an understanding of what his future holds, and while he's not even sure where that future will be, he knows that none of it is going to come easily.
"The will to be successful drives me," Hilliard said, endearing himself to whomever his future coaches may be. "I motivate myself from within."
Hilliard, who finished with 65 tackles and seven sacks last season, takes football very seriously. So seriously, in fact, that he had a decision to make when it came to his future.
"I play centerfield on the baseball team," he said, noting that Indiana and Cincinnati were recruiting him.
"Up until maybe a year ago baseball was my main sport. I had to choose between playing summer travel baseball or being committed to football. I chose football, but it wasn’t an easy decision. I will still play baseball, but only during the spring."
"He had to make a commitment," said John McCallister, director of the McCallister Scouting Report, who has watched Hilliard for some time. "He's a really, really good baseball player, but once he made that commitment to football, it gave him a chance to be a very good linebacker because he is so athletic."
Coach Specht accepts his commitment to football, but never provoked the decision.
"I never encouraged him to quit summer baseball," he said. "I encourage young people to participate in as many activities as possible because you are only young once.
"After all the interest he started gaining from universities, it became clear to Justin what sport his future was in. He wants to visit colleges and see the campuses so it would be difficult to continue playing summer baseball. He understands where all of the scholarship offers are coming from and what sport will pay for his education."
But it's not like he's a project who is still learning the game. He is not a "jack-of-multiple sports, master of none". He is already quite polished.
"He might be the best linebacker in Ohio," McCallister said, adding, "he could be big time."
Now that the dedication to football is there, the rest should fall into place for Hilliard, and not by accident.
"My brother (C.J. Hilliard) pushes me a lot and the competition between us brings out the best in me," he explained. "He’s a senior on the team this year and he will be playing football for Iowa next season."
Specht mentioned that while the brothers play different positions, the hunger for success is a core value for both.
"Justin and C.J. are very close," he said. "They have a great friendship, and while C.J. is a running back and Justin is a linebacker, the success of one drives the other."
Having seen his brother go through the recruiting process, Justin understands that eyes will be on him, and that the spotlight will catch his every mistake, as well as his every highlight. He isn't worried, however, because any spotlight is better than none, and not for the reasons that you might think.
"I like the spotlight because of what it does for my team and my teammates," he said. "It brings big-time exposure to the team and it brings scouts to the games, which can help my teammates also."
No doubt many scouts first noticed the younger Hilliard when they went to watch his older brother, and now he knows that his own exposure is nothing but a positive for his teammates.
"He gets it," Specht highlighted. "His parents have done a great job raising him. He bought into the mission at St. X, and everyone has had a positive hand in his upbringing. Justin realizes that he is part of something that is bigger than him.
"A lot of people have helped develop him and he likes to give back. He does a great job keeping the recruitment process in perspective. He’s a hell of a football player, but an even better person."
Those are some glowing words from his coach. Specht sees a leader in Hilliard, and it's something that the linebacker takes great pride in.
"I’m a believer in being vocal with the team," Hilliard said. "It’s harder to lead by example because you may not be able to change a person’s attitude by just working hard."
Hilliard hasn’t always been a vocal leader on the team, however.
“As a sophomore he didn’t say much at all," Specht explained. "He just went about his business. The development from last season to now has been tremendous. Justin wants to get better everyday and is pushing others to do the same."
The most successful leaders don't necessarily think about leading by example, they simply do what they do, and then others begin to notice.
Like his brother before him, Justin Hilliard is just doing what he does, and now the nation's top college football coaches are beginning to notice as well.