Justin Hilliard came to Ohio State as one of the top linebackers in the 2015 recruiting class, but his time as a Buckeye has rarely been without its trials.
Injuries held him back his first two seasons, but last year as a redshirt sophomore he was able to play in every game. A standout on special teams and a reserve at linebacker, Hilliard finished the year with 14 tackles, including at least one tackle in the Buckeyes’ final six games.
This spring, he was moved inside to middle linebacker and once starter Tuf Borland went down, he competed with sophomore Baron Browning for the No. 1 spot.
That competition will continue into fall camp, and who knows what will happen once Borland returns around that same time as well.
What we do know, however, is that Hilliard is as healthy as he has ever been, and more equipped for a larger role than ever before as well.
“Yeah. 100%. I feel like I’m so much further now than I was in high school,” he said this spring. “As far as some different things, mentally, physically I feel like I’m further than I was too. All of my injuries had nothing to do with my legs, most of them were arms. So as far as speed and the things like that, I feel like I haven’t slowed down a bit.”
Missing his first two seasons due to injury could be devastating to some players, and they certainly took their toll on Hilliard. His positive response to his injuries has always been his first step toward an impactful recovery, however.
“It’s a blessing knowing what I’ve been through, some of the injuries and things like that,” he said. “Injuries are tough. It’s not only a physical battle, but I would say mostly mental. I’ve been blessed to have a lot of the guys behind me. They’re some of my best friends, always pushing me through, never letting me feel sorry for myself. It’s tough, but you’ll get through it.”
While recovery from injury is a personal ordeal, having support along the way is critical to continued success. And for good reason.
Fighting for a spot and then earning it, only to see it taken away by injury can set a player back even further than the injury does.
“Sometimes that’s one of the most frustrating things,” Hilliard said. “You would keep developing, keep getting better, and then get hit. It’s not necessarily the part where you got injured, but it’s getting back to where you were, and then even getting better than you were is probably the hardest part.”
Hilliard is now past that hardest part and is simply trying to prove himself as one of the Buckeyes’ top three linebackers, which is all he has wanted to be able to do since the day he arrived.
Having fought this hard just to get to a spot where he can compete, don’t bet against him going those final steps and winning a job he has wanted since he arrived four years ago.