Justin Hilliard was carted off of the Ohio State practice field on Saturday, March 23rd.
The fifth-year senior Buckeye linebacker had injured his Achilles tendon, and as Hilliard hung his head following his latest setback, it was clear the injury was significant.
In less than six months, however, he was back on the football field for the Buckeyes.
And this past Saturday, he notched his second career start. (His first start came last year against Minnesota.)
With Wisconsin’s running game coming to town, Ohio State’s defensive brain trust decided to go with a beefier lineup featuring four defensive linemen, four linebackers, and three defensive backs. Hilliard was that fourth linebacker.
“We kind of found out I think Tuesday or Wednesday,” Hilliard said of finding out that he would be starting. “We knew that they ran heavier packages just to try to punch you in the mouth, and so we kind of had an idea by Tuesday.”
Generally when a player is getting somewhat of a surprise start, they tell a few family members. Not Hilliard, however.
“I honestly didn’t tell anyone,” he said. “They probably found out when you all found out.”
It didn’t take long for Hilliard to make an impact. On second-and-10 early in the second quarter, he dropped Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor for a loss of six, essentially ending that particular drive.
“It felt so good,” he said. “When I’m when I’m out there though I’m not going out to make plays, I’m going out to do my job, and on that play, yeah, I did my job.”
During the game there is no time for reflection, but afterward, Hilliard had some time to think about how much he has been through and how far he’s come in the past six months.
His first two seasons at Ohio State were lost to injury, but he was determined not to lose his fifth season as well.
“It means so much to me. So much. I was just talking to a lot of guys downstairs, having great moments. At times when I was down, those guys were picking me up so much,” Hilliard said.
“Coming back from the injury is one thing. Coming back to where you were, or just coming back and recovering, and then you got to get back to where you were and even better. And so the coaches — especially [linebackers] Coach [Al] Washington and [co-defensive coordinator Coach [Greg] Mattison have been on me and it’s starting to show up.”
Hilliard relied on his teammates to get him through the rough days, especially middle linebacker Tuf Borland, who went through his own Achilles injury in 2018.
“Oh yeah, we talked a lot. I was in his ear probably the most out of anybody,” Hilliard said. “Obviously the year before he made an unheard of comeback, coming back in six months. He was playing that first game and he tore his Achilles in the middle of spring ball, which was inspiring because when I tore my Achilles I knew had somebody to kind of lean on and ask questions.”
Injuries can be a lonely place and Hilliard has dealt with more than his share. He has done his best to keep his head up, but rehab is hard and so is starting over.
“I can’t say that I didn’t have some of those moments,” he admitted. “It hasn’t been completely easy, but this has been the best five years of my life. I love the teammates I’ve met, the coaches I’ve been with. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
Co-defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley is one of those coaches Hilliard is talking about. Even only being at Ohio State for less than a year now, Hafley has been impressed by Hilliard and was proud of the game the senior linebacker played against the Badgers.
“Incredible,” Hafley said after the game. “You look at a guy who came back from an Achilles injury as fast as he did. He waited for his time – because we haven’t had to use this package yet. He waited for his time and was able to get in and play as well as he did with as many snaps. It’s a credit to him. I’m so proud and happy for him because he really deserves that.”