COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — Justin Hilliard’s path to the NFL seems improbable. During his six years at Ohio State, he tore his biceps three times, tore his meniscus and tore his Achilles.
And yet the St. Xavier product found a way to standout as a backup linebacker before taking a more prominent role as a senior in 2020.
Hilliard was a five-star recruit at St. X in Cincinnati and was ranked as the No. 1 recruit in Ohio for the class of 2015 — an impressive feat considering that class included three future first-round picks in Joe Burrow, Denzel Ward and Damon Arnette.
Hilliard’s bad luck with injuries began immediately after he suffered a torn meniscus in his left knee during the first week of training camp. Hilliard also tore his left bicep and his right bicep, with those two injuries forcing him to miss his first two years at OSU.
“I’ve had so many times where I didn’t know if I was going to be able to push through,” Hilliard said. “I think a lot of times when you hear 3 to 4 to 6 months, season ending injuries, a lot of people usually call it quits and yeah I thought about that. But I’m so thankful for the teammates I have here, for the coaches, Coach Meyer especially. I think in that time when I was going through a lot of those injuries he was pushing me through.”
Hilliard served a s a backup linebacker in 2018 and was primed for a bigger role in 2019 before tearing his Achilles in Spring camp. He considered calling it quits following the injury but OSU coach Ryan Day and defensive co-coordinator Greg Mattison convinced him to stay. Hilliard was able to play the entire 2019 season following painful rehab and the NCAA allowed him to have a rare sixth year because of the injuries he suffered his first two years at Ohio State.
Hilliard’s perseverance paid off in a big way during the 2020 season when he played the best football of his college career. Hilliard constantly put himself in the right place at the right time racking up a career-high 33 tackles, five tackles for a loss, one forced fumble and one interception in only six games.
“It’s special to be in this position I am just because I know everything I’ve been through but at the same time one of the reasons I was able to push through all that adversity was because I never lowered my goal when I was injured and not on the field,” he said. “I saw myself as working to be the best linebacker in the country and so I’m going to keep that mentality moving forward and I think this is just a start for me.”
Hilliard turned heads once again during Senior Bowl week both in practice and at the game.
Hilliard is projected as a fourth round pick at best and more likely a sixth round pick because injuries have hampered his draft stock. But he could be one of the biggest steals of the draft for a team willing to take a chance on a player who has constantly found a way to overcome adversity.
“I’ve noticed a lot of [coaches] want to know more about my injury history and honestly what I tell them is pretty much the facts and the obvious,” he said. “I’ve had tons of injuries that have kept me off the field but the vast majority of my injuries have been to my upper body . . . so I’ve had just real, honest conversations with the coaches but I don’t think that’ll be an issue at all moving forward.”