Ohio State football: The meteoric rise of Justin Hilliard

The former Ohio State football player was beloved and now has a chance at an NFL dream.

The journey has been long, but the rise up the draft boards for Justin Hilliard has been rather meteoric. To really appreciate that rise, you have to understand the journey.

Hilliard was a five-star recruit out of St.Xavier High School in Cincinnati when he signed with the Buckeyes, and arguably the top linebacker in the country. Separate bicep injuries cost him large chunks of two seasons once he joined the Ohio State football program.

He became a valuable special teams member, but his career seemed to suffer another setback when he injured his Achilles during spring practice in 2019. However, Hilliard fought his way back and was ready to go for the beginning of the season.

The Ohio State football program began using him as a situational player, such as when they’d jump into a 4-4 defense. He even started three games that season, including the Big Ten championship game against Wisconsin. After the season, he petitioned the NCAA, and was granted a rare sixth year of eligibility.

When the 2020 season rolled around, most thought Hilliard would get a chance to make an NFL roster as a free agent, at least. But, even that seemed a bit of a longshot after he missed the first two games of the season because of positive COVID tests. To make the situation even more frustrating, one of those tests was a false positive.

It didn’t take long for the graduate student with a degree in marketing to make an impact once he returned in the third game of the season against Rutgers. Hilliard’s role quickly expanded, and soon after you began to hear talk of him not just getting a chance as a free agent, but actually being drafted.

The more he played for the Ohio State football team, the more his draft stock seemed to rise. In the Big Ten championship game against Northwestern he had nine tackles, including two tackles-for-loss, and an interception in the end zone. If not for Trey Sermon’s monster day, Hilliard probably wins the game’s MVP award.

Not long after the season ended, Hilliard accepted an invitation to the Senior Bowl. He impressed so much during the week in practice, the game’s director, Jay Nagy, said no other player helped himself as much as Justin Hilliard. He had gone from an almost afterthought to legitimate NFL Draft prospect in less than three months.

In looking at some mock drafts, I’ve seen Hilliard listed as going anywhere from the second to sixth rounds, to not being drafted at all. There seems to be wide-ranging opinions on when or even if he’ll be selected.

I reached out to Dan Shonka, who is the general manager for Ourlad’s NFL Scouting Services, to get their opinion on Hilliard. Dan is a football guy; he’s played, coached, recruited, and scouted at all the various levels of football. If Ourlad’s isn’t the most respected scouting service out there, they’re certainly very near the top of the list. They do all of their own scouting, and assign grades based on the round they think a player should be drafted. Here is some of what they had to say about Hilliard:

High energy player he explodes downhill on inside runs. Attacks open windows and can make plays in the backfield. Above average lateral agility he can scrape to the alley and make tackles in space. Usually gathers well and drives through tackles. As an overhang player he can be physical attacking tight ends and slots with quick hands to stun and separate. Has been used to blitz off the edge and can collapse the pocket when confronted by a back in pass protection.

Hilliard’s versatility jumps out at you in that critique. Here’s a bit more:

Takes good zone drops and is physical jamming slots and tight ends. Re-routes and plays the seam well. Has some trouble with multiple routes in zone. He will get over aggressive at times jumping a shallow route. Has short space mirror ability on receivers. 

A bit of a mixed review of his pass coverage skills, but I still see this as a positive critique. Ourlad’s goes on to say his value as a special teams player will benefit him in his NFL career. They close their review with this:

He will need to harness his aggressiveness into a more consistent player but he has some tools to work with.

Hey, I can live with that last line. Teams love aggressive players; you can teach a guy to play more under control.

Getting drafted may be the end of one journey, but it is also the beginning of another for Hilliard. He may never be a star in the NFL, but he seems to be one of those guys who could stick around long enough for you to look at some team’s roster one day and see he’s in his seventh season. I think that would be a fitting end to Justin Hilliard’s long journeys.