Justin Hilliard’s final three games in an Ohio State uniform may have changed his life forever.
Bad luck and a string of devastating injuries had previously kept the sixth-year senior outside the spotlight.
Then, suddenly, Hilliard found himself starting at linebacker during the Buckeyes’ most important stretch of games in over half a decade.
Across the Big Ten Championship, the CFP Semifinal, and the CFP National Championship, Hilliard rampaged his way to 25 tackles, five tackles for loss, an interception and two fumble recoveries.
Project that production over a full season and it’s a surefire Butkus Award campaign.
“I feel like for years, I was able to play at a high level every time I got on the field. I think the thing that changed was the opportunity,” Hilliard says.
“I kept a goal of being the best linebacker in the country my entire career. That was a challenge … (There was a time) where I wasn’t able to play because of injuries and other things, and I almost tried to convince myself I didn’t love football just so I could have a good night’s sleep and get through the day easier. I tried to convince myself I didn’t care that much. I think the biggest thing (to take from my story) is: don’t try to convince yourself that you hate the things you love just to make it easier. Go through that pain, but don’t lower your goals. Just keep at it.”
The legendary conclusion to Hilliard’s Buckeye career also greatly improved his odds of being selected in the NFL Draft.
It’s a dream that begun more than 16 years earlier.
Justin always played on the same sports teams as his older brother, C.J. Their age gap made for a rough introduction to football.
“That first year of football was just me getting absolutely tossed around. I think I weighed 20 pounds less than everybody else and was probably three inches shorter. But I fell in love with it,” says Hilliard
“After two or three years of that, I finally moved down two grades. That’s where it started taking off for me.”
His parents attended every game. Hilliard’s dad, Carl, wasn’t afraid to feed his son quiet motivation from the sideline.
“My dad was super into it. He developed hand signs during the middle of the game. So if (he) saw me out there loafing in second grade, he would do one of these,” Hilliard says, turning up an invisible dial.
“Or if I needed to hit hard, he’d do a (big clap). It was hilarious, but I think the years of that constant support got it ingrained in my brain to always give effort and always look to hit somebody.”
Hilliard once dreamt of being the next great running back. But by the time he arrived at St. Xavier High School (Cincinnati, Ohio), the universe seemed to be telling him otherwise.
St. X was loaded at the position and an adolescent growth spurt had left Hilliard clumsy and uncoordinated.
“I was that awkward kid still developing into his body. So I guess the place to put someone in that category is linebacker. I think the biggest frustration that year was I was putting in the effort, but I didn’t feel like the results were showing,” Hilliard recalls.
“At St. X, if you weren’t a one or a two, you were on the B team. So I actually played on the B team my freshman year.”
It was the first real dose of adversity in his football career. Hilliard responded by taking his training up a notch. While he knew he needed to be bigger and stronger, he identified a lack of explosiveness as his number one weakness.
“That off-season between my freshman and sophomore year is where I saw the biggest gains of my life. I really dove into (training). I even read a decent amount of STACK articles to find an edge,” says Hilliard.
“The next season, I was starting on varsity.”
At St. X, starting on varsity as a sophomore is an achievement. The Bombers are one of the nation’s premier football programs. Hilliard recalls how brutal team workouts helped build his body and bulletproof his mind.
“We did a finisher called Bomber Builders. You grabbed either a 25- or 45-pound plate then started with Overhead Triceps Extensions, then Front Shoulder Raises, then Chest Presses. There were another one or two movements in there and I think we did a minute of each exercise. And we probably did that at least 5-10 times,” says Hilliard.
“So by the third round, you’re dead. But I think those types of drills where you get to that point where you think you can’t do more but you still do it build toughness. I just wasn’t tough (enough) early in my high school career. To be a great football player, I think you’ve got to be tough.”
Hilliard’s potential at linebacker was soon unmistakeable. With prototypical size, preternatural instants and dazzling athleticism, he looked born to play the position.
Hilliard had collected over ten D1 offers by the end of his sophomore year.
Fast forward another year and he was ranked the best outside linebacker in the entire 2015 class. Offers poured in from the blue bloods of college football.
Yet Hilliard often found himself hearing the same spiel amidst the recruiting frenzy.
“They literally tell you everything you expect to hear. ‘You’re going to be starting the first day you get on campus. You’re gonna be a captain. The weightlifting’s not that hard. Classes are gonna be easy.’ You start hearing that, and no one stands out with that type of message,” Hilliard says.
Playing for the Buckeyes is a boyhood dream for just about every boy growing up in Ohio. Hilliard was no different. But he also had options. Him going to Columbus was by no means a foregone conclusion.
What really swung him was that Ohio State didn’t sugarcoat the extraordinary demands and expectations of their program.
“I started talking to Ohio State, especially (football performance coach) Mick Marotti, who’s become one of my biggest mentors in life. He said, ‘Justin, these are going to be the absolute hardest years of your life. Training at Ohio State is that much different than anything you’ve ever done. But by the time you’re out, you’ll be tougher. You’ll be a better football player. You’ll be a better person,’” Hilliard recalls.
“If were to go to these other schools, I knew that I wouldn’t be as good of a football player as if I went to Ohio State and (went) through some of those things. (The choice) became obvious after that.”
Hilliard kept leveling up on the field in the meantime. He earned the elusive five-star recruit rating and became the top-ranked player in Ohio. One recruiting analyst saw Hilliard “as a guy who could come in to just about any program and play early, potentially growing into an All-American candidate and NFL Draft pick.” That seemed to be the consensus.
The Buckeyes won a National Championship just a few weeks before Hilliard finalized his commitment to Ohio State.
The script was written: Hilliard would become a Buckeye, enjoy an outstanding career, and then maybe opt out early to go to the NFL — perhaps with a championship ring to show for it.
Little did he know what life had in store for him.
The first thing that struck Hilliard was the intensity of Ohio State’s practice. Drills moved at warp speed, coaches barked instruction, and the constant assault of competitive drills left zero room for loafing.
“There’s really no period where you’re just kinda walking around trying to get things right. For literally two hours, you’re sprinting to a drill, (then) when you get to the drill, you’re sprinting in that drill. And when you’re done with that drill, maybe a quick sip of water, then you’re sprinting to the next drill,” Hilliard says.
“Both Coach (Urban) Meyer and Coach (Ryan) Day are huge on one-on-one competition. So a lot of the drills we did, you’re going up against some of the best players. The guys you go up against in practice are probably that much better than the guys you see on Saturday. You do continuous reps going against the best in the nation, and you can only get better.”
Future pros Raekwon McMillan, Joshua Perry and Darron Lee held down the linebacker room as Hilliard redshirted his freshman season.
By spring ball, he was itching to make an impact.
Then came the first bicep tear.
The injury sidelined Hilliard for several months, but he was back in action for the season-opener against Bowling Green. He flew around the field and tallied four tackles, feeling like a huge weight had been lifted off his shoulders.
Then, just a couple weeks later, the unthinkable happened — Hilliard tore his other bicep.
Meyer announced the injury at a press conference before lamenting, “That’s when you shake your head like, ‘How the hell did that happen?’”
The same body that had helped Hilliard become one of the nation’s top recruits had suddenly failed him.
Suffering two significant injuries in such quick succession left him in a dark place.
“(It) was the hardest time in my life. I wasn’t mentally prepared for not playing football for two whole years and being injured that long,” he says.
But Hilliard refused to quit. He attacked his rehab and gradually got healthy, clinging to his enduring goal of one day being the best linebacker in the country.
Yet he soon discovered not everyone shared his same high standard.
“(I’d feel like) I was in a decent mindset, but there were some people who were able to bring me down. Because when you’re injured, expectations go down so much more. Maybe your friends have expectations (lower than your own), your coaches, your family,” he says.
“I think a lot of people in my life were probably just happy for me to get a rep on special teams or a tackle on kickoff or something.”
When Hilliard returned, the coaches weren’t quite sure what to make of him.
He’d missed hundreds, if not thousands, of practice reps.
Other linebackers on the depth chart had momentum and continuity on their side, and Ohio State’s recruiting machine had continued to score talent at the position while Hilliard was on the mend.
He had to adopt a more selfless approach to the game in order to stay on a positive growth trajectory.
“(I started) changing how I viewed playing the game of football. Before it was, ‘Oh, I just want to make big plays.’ But I think Coach Meyer changed that to adding as much value as (I) can and really just having fun playing and competing,” Hilliard says.
“Every time I’d get any rep, whether on kickoff or defense, I would try to add as much value (as possible) and be the best player at any point when I’m on the field.”
That attitude helped Hilliard appear in every game for the Buckeyes in 2017 and earn his first varsity letter. It also won him a ton of respect inside the program.
“(He’s) one of my favorite guys because he just goes as hard as he can,” Meyer said the following March. “I’m a Justin Hilliard fan. I hope he continues to grow as a defensive player.”
Hilliard’s momentum continued to grow over the next season. He tied for the team lead in special teams tackles. He received his first career start. He made several outstanding plays during the Buckeyes’ win over Michigan, earning himself ‘Player of the Game’ recognition. The performance prompted Meyer to proclaim Hilliard was “as good a special teams player” as he’d ever been around.
Hilliard remained hungry for more.
Heading into 2019, it looked like he may get it.
Day had recently been appointed the team’s new head coach. He’d revamped the defensive coaching staff, which gave Hilliard something of a clean slate.
While he’d played mostly as a rotational linebacker up to that point, his feel for the game had vastly improved. He was fit, strong, smart and healthy.
That fall was set to be Hilliard’s redshirt senior season.
He’d always wanted to be the best linebacker in the country. It was time to prove it.
Hilliard entered spring ball with a killer mentality.
Then, while matched up against J.K. Dobbins in one of the Buckeyes’ signature competitive drills, Hilliard felt a smack against the back of his left leg.
He looked with an incredulous hobble, thinking a teammate or coach must’ve accidentally kicked him.
The reality was far worse — Hilliard had just ruptured his achilles tendon.
“At that time, I thought, ‘Did I just practice my last football practice?,’” Hilliard says.
“That was obviously really tough for me because I still had those high, high aspirations of playing at the level I knew I could.”
After the initial shock wore off, Hilliard worked with the coaches and training staff to devise a comeback.
His injury history meant he’d have a case to petition the NCAA for an ultra-rare sixth year of eligibility.
In the meantime, he’d need to overcome an injury once considered a kiss of death for elite-level athletes.
But sports medicine had advanced, and Hilliard needn’t look further than his own linebacker room for proof a comeback was possible.
Tuf Borlad had torn his achilles almost exactly one year earlier. A freaky-fast recovery allowed him to return for the fall season and achieve impressive production. That benchmark helped give structure to Hilliard’s master plan.
“I knew I still wanted to be the best linebacker in the country. I knew to get there, I’d probably have to get a sixth year, and I’d have to rehab in six months so I could play the first or second game of the next season,” says Hilliard.
His mentality was now fortified by the hardships of previous rehabs. He had zero doubt he’d be successful.
That positive outlook helped Hilliard nearly match Borland’s recovery timeline. By September 14th, he was making a tackle during a win over Indiana.
He’d yet to regain his full explosiveness, but Hilliard continued to solidify his standing as a special teams ace and key defensive contributor.
When the Buckeyes deployed a four-linebacker front against Wisconsin, Hilliard made his second career start and helped hold the Badgers’ vaunted rushing attack to a meager 2.4 yards per carry.
When Penn State was threatening an upset in Ohio Stadium, Hilliard made a crucial interception to seal the victory.
His third and fourth career starts came during a win over Michigan and a second triumph over Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game.
It wasn’t until December when he finally heard back from the NCAA regarding his petition for a sixth season of eligibility. Hilliard’s case was compelling — he’d spent a combined 24 months of his college career rehabbing injury. His petition was granted.
It was a long-deserved reward for Hilliard’s perseverance; a merciful stroke of good fortune for a standup guy who’d endured far too many tough breaks.
Then, Covid-19 happened.
The off-season was dominated by uncertainty. But amidst the tumult, Hilliard displayed the kind of poise and leadership you’d expect from a sixth-year senior. When the Buckeyes elected captains — still unsure whether they’d have a season at all — Hilliard was one of them.
The moment he told his father says it all:
“Calling my dad was super emotional. Because in the past, if a coach was calling him, there was probably a 50% chance I just had a season-ending injury or something like that. So for him to get that call and get some really good news was a really cool moment,” Hilliard says.
“Out of all the accomplishments I’ve had, that’s probably number one on the list. It was obviously a goal I had coming in. Then looking back at all the setbacks I had, to finally get back to the point of (achieving) probably the biggest goal I had when I came in was so satisfying.”
On September 16th, it finally became clear the Buckeyes would indeed have a season — an eight game, conference-only schedule. Hilliard quickly tweeted his approval.
Yet more adversity awaited.
A positive Covid-19 test derailed what would’ve been Hilliard’s season debut against Penn State. It was later revealed as a false-positive. Day called the twist of fate “heart-wrenching”.
Hilliard then performed well against Rutgers, Indiana and Michigan State, but he didn’t get his first start of the season until the Big Ten Championship Game versus Northwestern.
Buckeye nation was lucky he did.
The Wildcats had a 10-6 lead early in the third quarter and were deep inside Ohio State territory. Another touchdown could’ve been a de facto knockout punch.
Hilliard lined up across from Northwestern tight end John Raine, who was flexed out as a wide receiver. Northwestern sent Raine on a fade — they believed he could outmuscle Hilliard for six points.
But Hilliard’s technique was immaculate. He mirrored Raine off the line, crowded him towards the sideline, and snatched the pass for an interception.
Later, with Ohio State nursing a three-point lead, Hilliard smashed an offensive lineman into Northwestern quarterback Peyton Ramsey, helping force a key fumble.
The Buckeyes pulled out the comeback victory. It couldn’t have happened without Hilliard.
Next up: the CFP Semifinal against Clemson, a team who’d already beaten the Buckeyes twice during Hilliard’s tenure.
Hilliard again played like a man on a mission. In just 34 defensive snaps, he totaled eight tackles and a tackle for loss while securing a crucial fumble recovery. His one-on-one tackle on Travis Etienne was absolutely textbook.
Six years earlier, Hilliard watched Ohio State play in the National Championship as a recruit. He’d now helped them return to that grand stage as a player and captain.
Alas, Hilliard’s Buckeyes did not win it all.
But Hilliard, playing against one of the greatest offenses in college football, proved to be a force.
He tallied eight tackles and two tackles for loss. Watch him shoot the gap on the goal line to crush Najee Harris:
When the dust settled, Hilliard had proven he was among the best linebackers in the 2021 draft class. A standout performance at the Senior Bowl only further bolstered his stock.
Hilliard’s resume includes an incredible 732 career special teams snaps — the most of any prospect in this draft class. Such expertise should not be overlooked in a league where the third phase of the game often determines the outcome.
“I think the rush of adrenaline you get on special teams is like no other,” Hilliard says.
“Kickoff’s fun as hell. I think that’s the most pure football play in the game. There’s no other play where a guy’s running full speed at a guy running full speed. So it’s really like guerrilla warfare.”
But his goal to the best linebacker in the country hasn’t disappeared. If anything, it’s only intensified.
Hilliard’s also passionate about the potential platform that comes with an NFL career. After persevering through so much, he wants to help ensure other kids get a fair shot in life.
“I did a ton of community service and different things with education at Ohio State. Because of my background, I was able to see the disparities in education,” says Hilliard, who was an Academic All-Big Ten honoree.
“I went to public schools, I went to schools where they didn’t have proper textbooks. But I also went to a school like St. X where you had no choice but to succeed. I think (we need) to level that out and give kids who don’t have the opportunity to go to a St. X-type school more of an even playing field.”
Hilliard’s journey shares many parallels with former Ohio State receiver Terry McLaurin.
McLaurin was a recruit in the class of 2014 — one year ahead of Hilliard.
He, too, struggled to earn significant playing time early on.
But he bought into Ohio State’s culture, made a name for himself on special teams, and built a reputation for doing the right thing.
McLaurin finally broke out as a fifth-year senior. A strong Senior Bowl showing proved his breakout was no fluke, and he ultimately wound up being selected by the Washington Football Team in the third round of the 2019 NFL Draft. Today, McLaurin’s one of the best young receivers in the NFL.
Could Hilliard chart a similar path?
“Terry is a guy I’ve always looked up to. Maybe people saw Terry as just a special teams player, like they may see me right now,” Hilliard says.
“But my goals are still crazy.”
Photo Credit: AP Newsroom, Ohio State Athletics, Student Sports