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Football: Finally healthy, Justin Hilliard eyes chance at meaningful playing time in the fall

Ohio State redshirt sophomore linebacker Justin Hilliard walks into the Hyatt Place to check in for fall camp on Aug. 6. Credit: Colin Hass-Hill | Sports Editor

Ohio State redshirt junior linebacker Justin Hilliard’s collegiate career has not gone the way he had hoped thus far.

Hilliard, a former five-star linebacker out of high school and the highest-rated player in Ohio State’s 2015 recruiting class, has battled injuries since arriving on campus in the fall of 2015, suffering three bicep tears in three years.

The injuries kept Hilliard sidelined more than he was healthy. The once-highly touted player has recorded just 18 total tackles in his career — most on special teams — and seemed buried in a talented depth chart.

But this spring offered a new opportunity for Hilliard. Two starting linebackers departed for the NFL following the 2017 season and the only presumed starter — redshirt sophomore Tuf Borland — is sidelined until at least the fall with an Achilles injury.

After being healthy for the first spring since he’s been at Ohio State, Hilliard now has a chance to earn meaningful playing time.

“It means so much [to be healthy],” Hilliard said. “Just because I know what I’ve been through, just kind of pushing through that, some of the difficulties — not only physically but mentally. It means a lot to just be out here in the spring.”

Linebackers coach Bill Davis said Hilliard was running with the ones at the middle linebacker position in practice, splitting reps with sophomore Baron Browning. His health has allowed him to finally take practice reps before the start of the season.

Davis explained that while natural athletic ability matters, practice reps are invaluable, and Hilliard has had few chances in practice these past three years.

“He missed a lot of reps with those injuries and I think people lose sight of that. But Justin Hilliard, right now, has had probably one of the better springs,” Davis said. “I’m not saying he’s behind right now. I’m saying he’s caught up. He’s caught up. Those injuries are why it took him awhile.”

But despite the injuries that have sidelined him for the better part of three seasons, Hilliard doesn’t feel he’s missed a beat. He feels he’s every bit the five-star athlete he was coming out of high school — and then some.

“I feel like I’m so much further than I was in high school,” Hilliard said. “Mentally. Physically, I feel like I’m further too.”

Hilliard said the injuries were to his arms and didn’t affect his overall athleticism.

“All my injuries had nothing to do with my legs,” Hilliard said. “I feel like I haven’t slowed down a bit.”

Spring practice concluded with no clear leader at any of the linebacker positions, meaning Hilliard’s battle for playing time is not over yet. But he’s pleased with where he’s at and is proud of everything he’s already overcome.

“Just looking back on the journey I’ve been through,” Hilliard said, “I still have a long way to go, but just looking back, I’m appreciative of all the things I’ve been through and overcame.”

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