Tag Archives: Ohio State football

“Climbing the Hill”: A Justin Hilliard story

How do you define impressive?

Is it recovering from an Achilles injury and multiple bicep tears to make it on the doorstep of professional football? Using your offseason to travel to Costa Rica and spend time with local youth imparting knowledge on sports and other life skills? Earning two degrees in six years?

All of the above. Most impressively, this is the resume of one person, Ohio State’s Justin Hilliard.

The beginning of the climb wasn’t as arduous for the Cincinnati native, who was a five-star recruit out of St. Xavier High School. ESPN ranked him the number one outside linebacker. He was also an Associated Press all-state selection and the publication’s Division I defensive player of the year in 2014.

However, a meniscus injury forced him to miss the 2015 U.S. Army All-American game and from there, the hits kept on coming.

During his first three seasons in Columbus, Hilliard suffered consecutive injuries to his bicep.

“I’ve had so many times where, like you said, I didn’t know if I was gonna be able to push through,” Hilliard told Spectrum News before the 2021 National Championship against Alabama. “The first three years here at Ohio State were probably the toughest because year after year I had a bicep tear in my left, a bicep tear in my right and then a bicep tear in my left again.”

During his first three seasons, Hilliard only played in 17 games total and compiled 18 tackles.

Justin Hilliard on the kickoff team versus Indiana in 2017
Former Ohio State linebacker Justin Hilliard (No. 47 pictured on the kickoff team vs. Indiana in 2017) was a significant factor on the Buckeyes kickoff team from the time he arrived on campus.

Long road back

Things started to look up in 2018 when he recovered from the biceps injuries and began to contribute as a backup and a special teamer. But like his fortunes up to that point, he dealt with another tough blow.

During spring practices in 2019, the former five-star recruit suffered another blow to morale when he tore his Achilles.

“The first thing that went through my head is that was probably my last practice and the last rep I’ll ever play football,” said Hilliard, when he reminisced about the injury.

“Climbing the hill”

If not for his father and a conversation with head coach Ryan Day and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, Hilliard would’ve put away his cleats… but he pressed on and as fate would have it, he would get another chance.

“It was some hard times, but we made it, we made it. There was times where Justin had to lift me up. There was a lot of times when I had to lift Justin up,” Carl Hilliard, Justin’s father said according to an article in Cleveland.com. “But when we look back at it overall — only thing I can say is, ‘God is Good.’ No weapon formed shall prosper.”

Despite the grueling rehab, Hilliard returned six months later and played 12 games in the 2019 season.

After the NCAA granted a sixth year of eligibility to Hilliard, it looked like he would be relegated to being a backup and a special teamer because the starting linebacker corps was manned by fellow NFL prospects Tuf Borland, Pete Werner and Baron Browning.

But once again, life had other plans. The COVID-19 pandemic forced Browning and Borland to miss time and Hilliard turned in career performances with his newfound opportunity.

Against Northwestern in the Big Ten Championship game, he had nine total tackles, two for loss, one interception and a fumble recovery. His interception stopped the Wildcats from taking a double digit lead in the third quarter and showed off the athleticism that helped him as a youth baseball player.

Justin Hilliard LB Ohio State
Hilliard finished with 25 tackles, five tackles for losses and an interception in his final three career games.

Ending strong

The storybook ending would not conclude there. Hilliard had back-to-back eight tackle games in the College Football Playoff semifinal and final, against Alabama and Ohio State.

“A lot of people hit me up, almost surprised that I can still play at that level,” He said. “I promised myself after I tore my Achilles that if I wasn’t feeling like I can still play at the level I wanted and achieve those high expectations (I set) for myself, I wasn’t going to keep playing.”

In the two combined contests, he finished with 16 tackles, three for loss and a fumble recovery.

And a month later, he put an exclamation point on his collegiate career. Hilliard had a standout performance during Senior Bowl week in Mobile, Alabama.

On the field, Hilliard catches the attention of scouts with his ability to contribute on special teams. They will also like that he played snaps at each linebacker position in college.

But the real value of Hilliard will be his ability to climb the hill and conquer adversity head on. A hill can have bumps and be rocky, but the former Buckeye is a walking testimony that reaching the top comes with appreciation and gratification.

“This whole journey, man, it’s been tough but it’s been such a blessing at the same time,” said Hilliard.

— Troy Jefferson, DraftNasty staff reports

2018 Recruiting Recap: Running Backs

This group has largely proven to be a hit-or-miss proposition for many of the schools who were certain they were getting home runs at each position. Some of them carried the dreaded All-Purpose label, meaning that there was no guarantee they could carry the full-time load at the collegiate level. Others ran into a litany of issues and have found their footing at different schools.

Zamir White RB Georgia
White averaged 5.4 yards per carry for the Bulldogs in 2020.

Zamir White RB-Junior Georgia: Ranked #1 by 247Sports, Rivals, & ESPN

White redshirted in 2018 after suffering a knee injury in preseason practices. However, in 2019 he made 13 appearances with 78 total touches, displaying some of his highly-touted potential. He started all ten games for the Bulldogs this past year, finishing with three 100-yard rushing outings and 11 touchdowns. The rising junior made the most of the opportunity, displaying his abilities as a true workhouse back. If the devasting injuries are behind him, odds are he’ll be taken in the first two rounds of next year’s draft.

Lorenzo Lingard RB-Junior Miami (Fla.): Ranked #2 by 247Sports & Rivals, #4 by ESPN

Lorenzo Lingard RB Miami (Fla.)
Before transferring to Florida, Lingard eight yards per carry for the ‘Canes in 2018 (17 carries).

Lingard spent his first two seasons playing for Miami (Fla.), and appeared in six games as a freshman before a leg injury ended his season. Following his sophomore season, he transferred to the University of Florida. Lingard is known for a good mix of extreme lateral quickness, explosiveness, and bruising running power. He’ll look to expand on only five rushing attempts for the Gators last year as he heads into the 2021 season.

Ricky Slade APB Penn State: Ranked #1 by 247Sports, #2 by Rivals, & #2 by ESPN

Slade was a highly touted five-star recruit coming out of high school. However, he saw limited playing time with the Nittany Lions, grabbing 92 total touches in two seasons. He transferred to Old Dominion following his sophomore season, but it has been reported this year that he is no longer with that program either. Slade dealt with some off the field issues last year and will need to land somewhere and produce mightily on the field to re-establish his football career, if that’s what he still wants.

Jaelen Gill Ohio State
Gill, pictured, had six catches for 104 yards and one TD vs. Virginia Tech in 2020.

Jaelen Gill APB-R-Soph Ohio State: Ranked #2 by 247Sports, #3 by Rivals, & #4 by ESPN

Gill appears to have played primarily receiver while on the collegiate level. He redshirted for the Buckeyes in 2019 and had just seven receptions through two seasons. Following the year, Jaelen transferred to Boston College seeking more playing time. He logged 29 receptions for 435 yards and one touchdown, returned seven punts and had four kickoff returns this past season with the Eagles.

James Cook APB-Senior Georgia: Ranked #3 by 247Sports, #1 by Rivals, & #3 by ESPN

Cook followed top-ranked running back recruit Zamir White to Georgia after an early commitment to Florida State in 2016. He’s amassed 117 carries for 775 yards and seven touchdowns in three years as White’s primary backup. Cook has also shown capabilities out of the backfield with 40 receptions for 446 yards and two touchdowns in his career.

Brian Snead RB-R-Soph Ohio State: Ranked #3 by 247Sports, #4 by Rivals, & #12 by ESPN

Brian was dismissed six months after enrolling at OSU due to an investigation (https://saturdaytradition.com/ohio-state-football/report-ex-buckeye-rb-brian-sneads-2018-suspension-stems-from-sexual-assault-accusation/). He appeared in two games with 11 rushing attempts prior to his dismissal. After spending 2019 at a community college, he transferred to Austin Peay State University. He is currently playing for the Governors as they are in midseason. Snead looks to be trying to put his unfortunate situation behind him, coming off a 227-yard, three-touchdown performance last weekend.

T.J. Pledger RB Oklahoma
Pledger caught nine passes in 2020.

T.J. Pledger APB-Junior Oklahoma: Ranked #4 by 247Sports, #5 by Rivals, & #6 by ESPN

Through three seasons with the Sooners, Pledger has had opportunities to display some of his dynamic playmaking ability. After playing in more of a reserve role his first two years, he had 95 rushes for 451 yards and five touchdowns last season. He put up big games against Texas and TCU, rushing for over 100 yards in both contests while also scoring at least one rushing touchdown. Despite a broader role in 2020, Pledger decided to transfer following the season and is now a member of the Utah Utes football team.

Ricky Person RB-Senior NC State: Ranked #4 247Sports & Rivals, & #20 by ESPN

Person has had a productive career since joining the Wolfpack, despite dealing with injuries his first two years. He rushed for 112 carries as a true freshman, and then an ankle injury limited him to only 61 rushes in 2019. Person had 147 carries last season (643 yards, 4 TDs) while starting every game. He’ll look to remain healthy and have a solid senior season. If so, it could land him on some draft boards for next year.

Harold Joiner RB-Junior Auburn: Ranked #5 by 247Sports, # 24 by Rivals, & #10 by ESPN

Joiner saw limited action in two seasons suiting up for the Tigers, posting only 15 carries through two seasons. It led him to enter the transfer portal last year. He is now committed to Michigan State and looks to compete for a starting role with two years of eligibility remaining.

Keaontay Ingram RB-Senior Texas: Ranked #4 by 247Sports, #7 by Rivals, & ESPN

Ingram totaled over 140 carries in each of his first two seasons for the Longhorns. However, this past year (with the emergence of two underclassmen in the backfield), his carries dwindled drastically. Ingram recently announced his transfer to the USC Trojans, where he looks to regain a starting role in his senior campaign.

NOTE: All positional designations were marked according to their projections coming out of high school (see APB-All-purpose back). In addition, we included the class of each player per the NCAA not counting this season as a used year of eligibility. If a player transferred (see Snead), we listed the original school who signed the recruit.

2018 Recruiting Recap: Offensive Line

Tyre Gaines takes a look back at the top offensive line recruits from the 2018 class and how they’ve progressed thus far. Who’s surpassed expectations and who may still have work to do.

77 Cade Mays and 69 Jamaree Salyer at Georgia
Cade Mays (No. 77 pictured, write-up below) and Jamaree Salyer (No. 69 pictured) were teammates at Georgia in 2019.

Jamaree Salyer OG-Junior Georgia: Ranked #1 by 247Sports and Rivals, and #2 by ESPN

Played in a reserve role in 2018, appearing in 13 of 14 games and he then played in 13 contests during the 2019 campaign. This past season, he started the first nine games at left tackle before moving to guard for the 2021 Peach Bowl. Playing in 92% of all offensive snaps for the Bulldogs last season, he showed some promise. Right now, Salyer is slated as a mid-round draft prospect in 2022.

Nicholas Petit-Frere OT-Junior Ohio State: Ranked #1 by 247Sports, Rivals and ESPN

Played in all 14 games in 2019 but didn’t start. Off the field, however, he achieved Academic All-Big Ten honors. He is currently the starting right tackle at Ohio State. Petit-Frere’s intriguing reach, length and athleticism make him a legitimate prospect for either the 2022 or 2023 NFL Drafts.

Brey Walker OT-Junior Oklahoma: Ranked #2 by 247Sports, #4 by Rivals, #5 by ESPN

Walker played in 13 of 14 contests during the 2019 campaign, with two of those appearances being starts at the right guard spot. He appeared in three games in 2020, backing up projected 2021 NFL Draft pick Adrian Ealy at right tackle. Walker will compete for a starting job in 2021.

Rasheed Walker OT Penn State
Walker (No. 53 pictured vs. Minnesota in 2019) earned Honorable mention All-Big Ten honors in 2020.

Rasheed Walker OT Penn State Ranked #3 by 247Sports, #7 by Rivals, & #13 by ESPN:

Walker appeared in four games as a freshman and then became a starter as a redshirt sophomore. In 2019, he started 13 games at the left tackle spot. He again started all nine games for the Nittany Lions in 2020. Walker is already considered to be a surefire tackle at the next level, as he has appeared in 26 games with 22 starts, all at left tackle.

Cade Mays OT-Junior Georgia: Ranked #3 by 247Sports, Rivals, & ESPN

Mays received Freshman All-American honors in 2018, playing in 11 of 14 games with seven starts at Georgia. He saw action at every offensive line position during the 2019 season, when he started 11 of 14 contests. He decided to transfer to Tennessee prior to the 2020 season, as he is from Knoxville. Mays started all seven games for the Vols and was projected as a potential early round pick before deciding to return for the 2021 season.

Justin Dedich OC-R-Soph USC Trojans: Ranked #2 by 247Sports, #1 by Rivals, & #3 by ESPN

Dedich saw brief action as a redshirt in 2018 and was the team’s backup center in 2019 before starting the last two games. He’ll have work to do to solidify his draft position with only eight appearances thus far in his career.

Jackson Carman OT-Clemson

Jackson Carman OT-Junior Clemson Ranked #2 by 247, Rivals, & ESPN

Carman saw action with 209 snaps in 13 games in 2018. Earned third team All-ACC honors in 2019. He started all 12 games at left tackle in 2020, collecting second-team All-American honors and second-team All-ACC accolades. Carman declared for the 2021 NFL draft and is projected to be a starting guard at the next level.

Matthew Jones OC-R-Soph Ohio State: Ranked #1 by 247Sports, #7 by Rivals, & #1 by ESPN

Redshirted in 2018 and backed up All-Big Ten guard Jonah Jackson for most of 2019. Started the 2021 CFP national championship game against Alabama as a redshirt sophomore after helping fill gaps during an unorthodox Big Ten season. With continued reps and progression, Jones could be a prospect in either the 2022 or 2023 NFL Drafts.

William Barnes OT-Junior UNC: Ranked #5 by 247Sports, #2 by Rivals, & #4 by ESPN

Barnes made appearances in 12 games in each of the last two seasons. Known for quick instincts off the line and solid pass protection coming out of high school, he should look to both establish and improve his draft position in 2021. As of now, all five of the starting spots along the UNC offensive front are filled by returning lettermen.

Sewell earned Freshman All-American honors in 2018 despite missing six games due to an ankle injury.

Penei Sewell OG-Junior Oregon: Ranked #2 by 247Sports, #5 by Rivals, & #6 by ESPN

He was the first offensive lineman in Oregon history to earn all-conference honors as a true freshman. Earned various awards and honors during his two seasons with Ducks. Sewell was the first sophomore and Oregon Duck to win the Outland Trophy. Opted out of the 2020 season to focus on the draft, and he is projected as a consensus top five pick in this year’s upcoming draft.

NOTE: All positional designations were marked according to their projections coming out of high school (see Sewell). In addition, we included the class of each player per the NCAA not counting this season as a used year of eligibility. If a player transferred (see Mays), we listed the original school who signed the recruit.

2017 Cotton Bowl preview: USC vs Ohio State, 12-29-17

Two blue chip programs will matchup in the Cotton Bowl on Friday night.

The Cotton Bowl will serve as a consolation prize for Ohio State (11-2 overall, 8-1 Big Ten) and USC (11-2 overall, 8-1 Pac-12), both of whom had College Football Playoff aspirations at the beginning of the season.

Both teams are led by star quarterbacks. Sam Darnold, a consensus Top 10 NFL draft prospect, leads the men of Troy. J.T. Barrett, one of the most decorated quarterbacks in college football history, leads the Buckeyes.

Both teams enter the game as conference champions as USC defeated Stanford and Ohio State beat Wisconsin in their respective conferences.

Players to watch

Ohio State Buckeyes

J.K. Dobbins RB- Freshman 

Freshman running back J.K. Dobbins averaged 7.5 yards per rushing attempt and had six games this season with more than 100 rushing yards. After just one season, Dobbins is making waves and could find himself in the same breath as former Ohio State running backs Archie Griffin, Maurice Clarett and Eddie George. Dobbins took home the MVP award in the Big Ten Championship after finishing with 174 rushing yards on just 17 attempts.

Tyquan Lewis DL-Senior

Lewis is expected to be an early-round draft pick and will have to be accounted for by the Trojans offensive line. Lewis has 22 career sacks, 34.5 tackles for losses and four forced fumbles. When Lewis is at his best, he’s a relentless pass rusher who is never out of a play.

USC Trojans

Ronald Jones II RB- Junior

Darnold might receive the air time but Ronald Jones II was the workhorse running back behind the Trojans offense.  Jones II finished the season with 242 carries for 1486 yards.  Like Dobbins, he had an impressive conference championship game. He finished with 140 rushing yards (4.7 YPC) and two touchdowns against Stanford.

Iman Marshall CB- Junior

 

Marshall has been as reliable as they come at USC.  The junior cornerback stands 6’1″  205 lbs, and he has the size scouts will covet in the NFL.  Marshall has six career interceptions.  A knee injury forced him to miss four games in the middle of the season. However, Marshall returned for the final two games of the season, finishing with two pass deflections.

Prediction: USC 21 Ohio State 35

Dallas Cowboys RB Ezekiel Elliott: Ohio State at Maryland, 10-4-14

Current Dallas Cowboys and former Buckeyes RB Ezekiel Elliott (No. 15 pictured) rushed for 139 yards on 24 carries versus the Maryland Terrapins on October 4, 2014 in Byrd Stadium.

Photo by: Al Bradley

Instagram: www.instagram.com/1djsoul

UPDATE: Elliott was picked fourth overall in the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft by the Dallas Cowboys.  In two seasons in the NFL, he has rushed for 2,614 yards (4.6 YPC) and 22 touchdowns.  The 2016 first-team All-Pro selection has also caught 58 passes for 632 yards and three touchdowns.