When Justin Hilliard came to Ohio State in 2015, he arrived as a 5-star prospect and arguably the top linebacker recruit in the nation.
Now two years later and he has just three games played to his credit.
A knee injury cost him his freshman season. A right biceps injury took away his 2016 spring camp, and then a left biceps injury in September cost him all but the Buckeyes’ first three games.
“That’s when where you shake your head like, ‘How the hell did that happen?'” Urban Meyer said at the time of the second biceps injury.
Some people may have begun writing Justin Hilliard off, but after seeing him play this spring, those scripts will have to be rewritten.
Hilliard spent the spring as Ohio State’s No. 2 middle linebacker behind senior Chris Worley and looked good doing it. He was healthy throughout, though the staff was very cautious about overworking him. The former 5-star prospect was finally able to show what he could do, and everybody took notice.
Justin Hilliard flying into the backfield. pic.twitter.com/uJ4NdBXt6r
— Ozone Communications (@theOzonedotnet) April 15, 2017
There's that guy Justin Hilliard again. pic.twitter.com/oLb0pvEGVH
— Tony Gerdeman (@TonyGerdeman) April 16, 2017
“We didn’t know (what Hilliard could do),” Meyer said in the spring. “But it’s good to see him. Coach Davis had a blank slate with him. We all have no idea what he can do. I believe he’s been hurt for two years now, and it’s time. He’s been very impressive. He’ll be in the mix.”
Even though this was the second year as part of the program for Bill Davis, this was his first hands-on situation with his players, which meant that everybody got that same blank slate. Each linebacker has put that new start to good use in their own way. For Hilliard, not only did he need to get healthy, but he also needed to know that his football career wasn’t over following a pair of biceps injuries.
That’s where Davis comes in.
He told Hilliard about his experience in the NFL with D’Qwell Jackson, who also went through a pair of biceps injuries. Jackson recovered just fine and went on to become a Pro Bowl linebacker. Sometimes just a little reassurance is all that is needed.
“You have to ask Justin, but I think it probably relieves him because one of the things in my career is if you know of somebody who has overcome what you’re going through and has been successful, I think it really helps,” Davis explained. “For Justin Hilliard to know there’s a guy out there, D’Qwell Jackson, who has torn both biceps two years in a row and then went on to be in the Pro Bowl, that relieves him of a little bit of anxiety and he can go play football.”
Those were Davis’ words before the pads even went on in the spring. The real test would be when the pads and the hitting were in place. Sure, Hilliard had some sore days, but they kept an eye on him and kept him active. It paid off with a fantastic spring, all things considered.
“Justin had a great finish to spring,” Davis said a month later. “He had some ups and downs — like all of them do — but Justin had a really good spring game. He hasn’t been on the field for a long time, so he had a lot of rust to get off. And I think the spring game and spring football helped him get some rust off, build some confidence to move forward, and make a run at these positions.”
No longer rusty, Hilliard now becomes a viable part of the Ohio State defense. It is becoming clearer that while he may not be a starter, if he is called upon, he can be expected to play like one.