Justin Hilliard came to Ohio State from Cincinnati St. Xavier and he brought along with him hefty expectations.
As a 5-star prospect, Hilliard was supposed to fall right into the lineage of Buckeye linebacker greats. Injuries knocked him clear of that path pretty early on, however. Multiple biceps injuries over the years have cost him practices, games, and seasons.
Now in his fourth year at Ohio State, Hilliard is once again on track to make his mark on Buckeye football.
Playing in all 14 games last season, Hilliard excelled on special teams. With middle linebacker Tuf Borland now out with an Achilles tendon injury, however, he and sophomore Baron Browning have been handling the middle this spring.
So far, they are both picking up where Borland left off.
“It’s been going really well,” Hilliard said. “Been getting a lot more reps than usual. I feel really good just because this is actually my first spring not being in the rehab room. Tuf’s been helping me out a lot. Baron’s been helping me out a lot. It’s really just a family right now at middle linebacker.”
Even though Borland’s injury has allowed for more opportunity, the family aspect of the linebackers keeps Hilliard from seeing the injury as a blessing in disguise.
“No, the linebacker room is such a tight-knit room. Whenever you see a guy going down, you feel just as bad,” he said. “Especially me, I know exactly how that feels having torn three biceps here and being in the rehab room all spring. I definitely know how he feels. I mean, I know the opportunity that I have, but at the same time I feel for him.”
Urban Meyer has been singing Hilliard’s praises since the start of spring football. Despite his injuries, he has always done what he’s been asked to do. Even last spring when he was finally getting some opportunities, the coaches didn’t really know what he was capable of handling, but they were impressed each time out.
After seeing him last season and then continuing through this spring, they clearly see somebody who is ready for a larger role in the Ohio State defense.
“Justin has had a great spring,” said linebackers coach Bill Davis. “He really has taken a big step. Right now he is running with the MLBs, him and Baron are kind of switching off. But Justin again with his understanding and his reps and all those injuries are behind him. He missed a lot of reps with those injuries. I think people lose sight of that. But Justin Hilliard right now, he has had one of the better springs.”
Having done as much work in the rehab room as the practice field, Hilliard is appreciative of every rep he can get in practice.
“It means so much just because I know what I’ve been through,” he said. “Pushing through that and some of the difficulties – not only physically, but mentally – it means a lot to be out here in the spring.”
Justin Hilliard Was Never Alone
Hilliard frequently had company in the rehab room in the form of fifth-year senior wide receiver Johnnie Dixon. Prior to last season, Dixon had spent his entire career being injured. Dixon stayed healthy all spring last year, and then continued on with a productive 2017 season. Hilliard watched it the entire time.
“He’s such an inspiration. We talk all the time about that,” he said. “Most of the springs I’ve been here I’ve been in rehab and been in the rehab room with Johnnie, so we’ve been pushing together through that. And it was such a cool experience to see him have that spring and season he had last year.”
Recovering from injuries isn’t just a physical exercise. Recovering mentally can take just as long, or even derail the recovery entirely. With injury after injury, Hilliard went through his ups and downs. He admitted that there was a thought in his mind that he was never going to get healthy, but the people around him helped to eliminate that line of thinking quickly.
“Maybe for a split second,” he said. “Maybe for a split second. But all of my teammates, all of the linebackers were there for me every time I got hurt. Picking me up and things like that.”
The only way to fully appreciate a journey is to remember every step that was taken. Justin Hilliard’s journey has taken him off the path quite a bit, which is why he is so appreciative to once again be headed in the proper direction.
“Just looking back on the journey that I’ve been through, I still have a long way to go,” he said. “But looking back, I’m appreciative of all of the things I’ve been through and overcome.”
Best wishes to Justin for a healthy and enjoyable year, and a successful season.
I think this is the year people get to gain an appreciation for Justin. I had picked Jerome Baker to be the first in his class to make a huge splash ahead of Justin. I didn’t expect to be because of injury though. Jerone just had that something the coaches look for. The intangible “it” factor.Jerome was just a freak level athlete who was way more than just a linebacker. Justin was a pure sideline to sideline MIKE with a seek and destroy disposition.Had he remained healthy I think he would have eventually overtaken Jerome as the top linebacker from his class, but, it wasn’t in the cards. NOW? Justin is going to spend a couple years breaking opponents hearts whenever he gets the opportunity.
Welcome home Justin. Get er done!
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