Fall down seven times, get up eight. That seemed to be the mindset for Justin Hilliard throughout his career at Ohio State.
Early in his collegiate career, Hilliard dealt with an Achilles injury and two torn biceps. However, the Buckeyes linebacker managed to return to the field and produce at a high level the last two seasons.
This past season, Hilliard had 33 total tackles, three fumble recoveries and an interception. It was his way of showing NFL scouts what he’s capable of when he’s at full strength. His skillset was on display once again this year, as he was a standout performer at this year’s Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama.
With the NFL Draft on the horizon, Hilliard recently spoke with The Spun to discuss his Ohio State career, thoughts on Ryan Day and Urban Meyer, what to expect at his pro day, and so much more.
Greatest honor of my life. pic.twitter.com/kvUPXtmHXz
— Justin Hilliard (@JHilliard47) January 12, 2021
The Spun: What was the Senior Bowl experience like?
Justin Hilliard: One of my major goals coming into this season was to get to the Senior Bowl. From the moment I got that invite, I knew what I had to do and show scouts. The last two years people underestimated by ability to play in space and play in man coverage. During the Senior Bowl, I was playing inside the box – mic and will. I think I was the only linebacker to play two positions. The experience was great for me. I knew what I had to show, and I think once people were able to see that I turned some heads.
The Spun: Jim Nagy recently gave you a shoutout saying no player has done more for their stock than you. What does it mean to hear that?
JH: It means a lot. Just to put into perspective, I wasn’t getting any looks three or four months ago. It wasn’t anything that really changed. I think I just had some opportunities come my way as far as playing at Ohio State and playing at the Senior Bowl. But to hear that from Jim Nagy, who gave me a chance to play at the Senior Bowl, that means a lot.
No player in 2021 draft helped himself more over past two months than @OhioStateFB LB Justin Hilliard (@JHilliard47). Former 5⭐️ overcame string of injuries to excel in CFP and was one of top performers Senior Bowl week. This drop & drive is exactly what NFL is looking for at LB. pic.twitter.com/9TMF7sgG8W
— Jim Nagy (@JimNagy_SB) February 11, 2021
The Spun: Looking back at your Ohio State career, what’s your favorite moment?
JH: I think I have two. First, it was being named a captain. That was my first goal coming to the program back in 2015, so to see that happen was great. And the second moment would be the Clemson win from this past season. I don’t think we’ve ever focused on a game and let it fuel us as hard as that Clemson loss the year before. To be able to come back the next year and do what we did, I’ll always remember that.
The Spun: There was a lot of chatter leading up to this year’s game against Clemson, and then you guys go out there and dominate. Did Dabo Swinney’s comments play any factor?
JH: Obviously we saw that whole thing about what Dabo said [laughing]. That was just more poster material for us that week, but we honestly didn’t need that. From the moment we lost that game in 2019, everywhere you went around the facility had the score of 27-23. That was enough to fuel us past the adversity we had when the season was originally canceled all the way up to our rematch.
OLB Justin Hilliard been playing good football for @OhioStateFB over last month
6'1 231lbs outstanding mix of length/athleticism. Only played 263 snaps on defense coming into '20 w/ injuries early on – granted 6th year eligibility
Staggering 726 special teams snaps in career pic.twitter.com/3dFc7oYGex
— Ben Fennell (@BenFennell_NFL) January 3, 2021
The Spun: You battled through some injuries in your career, but still finished strong. What does that say about you?
JH: I think the hardest thing for a lot of guys, and even I had times at Ohio State when I questioned things, is that people are in your ear and telling you different options. Some guys simply just quit. The biggest thing for me is that I always saw myself as a top linebacker in the country. That was my goal even when I was rehabbing four years ago as a special teams guy. That’s exactly what my goals were. When that time came this year, it wasn’t a surprise that I played well, but it was still cool to see that hard work pay off.
The Spun: Which NFL linebackers do you study on film?
JH: The one that inspires me the most is Luke Kuechly. He’s a guy who went to my high school, a guy who I had many conversations with, including at the Senior Bowl. I respect him so much because of his work ethic off the field. If you watch those videos of Kuechly going through different scouting reports, you can tell that he knew what the other team was doing before they even did it. That’s nothing but hard work. He treated the game as a coach, and it showed up that way on film.
Impressive play by Justin Hilliard shooting the gap and tackling Najee Harris in the backfield. Beats the slot receiver tasked with the block to the spot. Experienced backer who trusts his eyes! pic.twitter.com/TCwQT90aOg
— Lorenz (@ScoutingLenz) February 15, 2021
The Spun: You played with so many greats at Ohio State, who was the toughest guy to face at practice?
JH: Man, that’s tough. I would probably say Pat Elflein and Zeke. I remember my first year at Ohio State, I played on the scout team and had to go up against Zeke and Pat Elflein every day. That was a doozy.
The Spun: What’s the biggest difference between Urban Meyer and Ryan Day?
JH: I would say the foundation is pretty much the same. A lot of our core values as a program have remained the same, but obviously they’re different coaches. First of all, Coach Meyer is probably one of the most influential coaches I’ve ever had. His approach is more so getting guys to perform at that level simply from pure competition. Everything about our program was about competition, and it still is to this day, but I think Coach Day approaches it in a way where he wants his guys to be fueled and motivated by the love of their teammates and coaches.
The Spun: How would you feel about reuniting with Coach Meyer in Jacksonville?
JH: Hell yeah. That’d be unreal. Like I said, he’s one of the most influential coaches I had. Honestly, looking back at everything I went through, if he wasn’t there, I may not have gotten through as easy as I did. I know what type of coach he is and what type of culture he’d bring to that program, so it’d be awesome [to reunite with Meyer].
Ohio State’s Justin Hilliard pass-rushing vs RB4 Michael Carter💥
— PFF Draft (@PFF_College) January 26, 2021
The Spun: There’s a lot of criticism around Justin Fields when analysts rank the quarterbacks in this class. What are your thoughts on that?
JH: I think that’s been the most frustrating thing I’ve seen through this entire draft process – seeing how he stepped up in some of the biggest games in college football, yet not get credit for it. For him to come to a program like Ohio State and instantly gain respect of the team, it shows how great of a leader he is. It literally felt like he’s been here for years when he just got there. I don’t understand where some of the questions about him are coming from.
The Spun: What are you hoping to show at your pro day?
JH: First, I’m excited about the medical day at the NFL Combine. I say that because I’ve had a lot of injuries. As soon as people read my profile and see that I tore my biceps, hurt my Achilles, and had my knee scoped, they’ll instantly think ‘His body is torn up.’ So I think if I show these team doctors that I’m in the best shape of my life, that’ll erase some question marks. For the pro day, I think scouts know I can run, but I want to solidify that with the different drills there.
The Spun: What should we expect from you in the NFL?
JH: I think my style of play fits to any team. I’m the type of guy that when you turn on the film, I’m constantly going hard and getting to the football. That’s what a lot of scouts and people are starting to notice. You’ll see me going hard on every single play at the next level.
JUSTIN HILLIARD WITH THE PICK 💪 pic.twitter.com/T8tisLDQQL
— Barstool OSU (@BarstoolOSU) December 19, 2020
Pro Football Focus has Hilliard ranked as the sixth-best linebacker in this year’s class. They raved about his ability to defend the run while also grading well in pass coverage.
Hilliard is expected to hear his name called on either Day 2 or 3 of the NFL Draft.
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