Five years ago, K.J. Hill was months away from beginning his collegiate career as a pass-catcher in an Arkansas Razorback uniform in the SEC.
Instead, the redshirt senior wide receiver spent his final conference game in Indianapolis wearing scarlet and gray, finishing with more catches than anyone in Ohio State history during a lightning-rod second half performance that spurred on 27 unanswered points.
“I just wanted to lead the team to a Big Ten Championship,” Hill said. “I know how it feels to be on that stadium with the confetti falling, and I wanted that feeling again for my senior year and I got it.”
It wasn’t just a shot at his third conference title that Hill knew was approaching ahead of Saturday, though. Entering the weekend with 188 career catches, he was just four away from breaking David Boston’s career Buckeye record.
At his 70-catch pace from a season ago, Hill would have broken it games ago, but due to a heavier run emphasis on offense and a slew of first half blowouts, he’d have to wait until Game 13 to have a shot.
Down 21-7 at halftime, though, breaking the record wasn’t the first thing on his mind.
Hill said redshirt senior wide receiver and team captain C.J. Saunders gave a rousing speech during the intermission that shifted the tone for the Buckeyes.
“If you ain’t swinging, you need to stay in the locker room,” Hill said in a paraphrasing of Saunders’ halftime words.
Hill took heed, and played a major role in reversing the Buckeyes’ fortunes.
After Ohio State scored 10 points to open the third quarter, sophomore quarterback Justin Fields leaned on his veteran receiver on a drive in which the team knew they needed to score, Hill said.
Fields found Hill for back-to-back completions –– the second of which being the record-setting grab.
“I knew during the game I had broken it, but I couldn’t really think about it because we were behind,” Hill said. “I was just trying to do anything I could to help this team win. That’s the best way I could go out with a Big Ten Championship in a Big Ten game breaking the record.”
Fields connected with him once again a few plays later over the middle of the field seven yards away from the goal line. He pivoted left past a Wisconsin defender, side-stepped another and leapt over and between two more to break the plane.
The score put the Buckeyes up 24-21 –– their first lead of the game.
On a broken play in the fourth quarter, Fields scrambled left and tossed back to the middle of the end zone, and found Hill, who had wiggled away from a Wisconsin defender hugging his hip and fell down after Hill’s quick change of direction.
“I kinda had a feeling this game was gonna be K.J.’s game, and he did his thing. I couldn’t be happier for him,” redshirt senior cornerback Damon Arnette said.
Hill finished with 83 yards on a team-high seven catches, and his two scores give him 10 for the year.
Having played five seasons, Hill has the benefit of experience, and said he wouldn’t have had the success he’s had without mentors like Michael Thomas, Curtis Samuel, Parris Campbell and others.
He’s gone from student to teacher in his role with the Buckeyes, as sophomore wide receiver Chris Olave called Hill a role model, and freshman wide receiver Garrett Wilson referred to him as a big brother figure.
He may have just set the record, but Hill wants to see his successors meet him in the history books.
“I’m just trying to show guys like Garrett Wilson, Chris Olave, Jameson Williams the way, so they can just keep going in the room,” Hill said. “One day one of them might break my record.”