Justin Hilliard is no stranger to the spotlight. In fact, as the nation's top-ranked outside linebacker, the five-star Cincinnati native has been expecting it. It's what he's worked for.
"I did," he said, when asked if he ever imagined football would make him a quasi-celebrity. "I believe I've been the hardest worker in my class since I was in the ninth grade."
Now, three years later, the 6-foot-2, 230-pound Hilliard heads into his senior season at Cincinnati St. Xavier High School as one of the country's most respected, recognizable and sought-after recruits. His hard work has paid off, and Hilliard doesn't take that for granted.
"I believe the most stressful thing about this process has been having to do all the research, having to find out what is real about each school and what is not," he said of the pressure of being a national recruit. "I mean, the stress is manageable, but some of the little things like taking 45 minutes a day to open mail, that's stressful. I actually enjoy conversing with fans, media, etc., because those are the people who help build you up. All in all, it's been great, I would not trade this opportunity for anything."
In late May, Hilliard narrowed down his list to five finalists: Alabama, Iowa, Notre Dame, Michigan and Ohio State. Since that time, he's made additional visits to Iowa, Notre Dame and most recently, Ohio State. He announced prior to his last visits, that a decision date would come much sooner than originally expected. Immediately following his Buckeye visit, he announced the date: July 2nd.
Announcing my decision July 2nd at St. Xavier High School (Time has not been set) pic.twitter.com/ZPeIdT2MBI— Justin Hilliard (@JHilliard47) June 22, 2014
"There's no significance to that date," he said. I just wanted to commit at the right time and I felt that was it. I'm glad the process is ending because it's time for me to be a recruiter. I'm excited to go out and get a class together that will hopefully be a top-three class nationally. I've been thinking about that since I got my first offer. I want to win."
“I'm glad the process is ending because it's time for me to be a recruiter.”
Many of the country's top players, including Minnesota defensive lineman Jashon Cornell, the nation's top-running back Damien Harris and Virginia offensive lineman Matt Burrell have all stated that Hilliard is someone they'd love to play alongside. That's not necessarily by design, according to Ohio's top-rated linebacker, but it's not a coincidence either.
"Where ever I end up I believe we'll have the number one class in the country," he said of his developing friendships around the country. "It's all about building relationships because those guys will be my future teammates and future classmates."
During his most recent visit to Ohio State, Hilliard spent time with Arizona standout Christian Kirk. The two hadn't met before, but the Queen City superstar said they got along well.
"(Christian) and I talked a little football," Hilliard said of the Scottsdale wideout. "We got a lot of time to build a relationship and get to know each other. (That was the one thing that stood) this weekend (at Ohio State and Notre Dame): hanging out with the players. When it comes down to it, those are the guys you're going to be surrounded with when you get to college. It was also really good to attend the business school meetings, learning what I could with each degree."
Hilliard also spent more time with Urban Meyer.
"Coach Meyer is very involved in my recruitment," he said of the Ohio State head coach. "We talk almost every day. He's very personal outside of football and all business when he's involved in the game. It still makes me laugh that I have the ability to pick up the phone and call Coach Meyer, Coach Saban, Coach Ferentz, Coach Kelly, or Coach Hoke. My recruitment has come with plenty of benefits, it's been an enormous blessing."
Now, a week away from a decision, Hilliard says the toughest part is just separating great school from great school.
"This decision is very hard," Hilliard said. "Every school I'm looking at has opportunities for great education and great football. Ultimately, it will come down to where I am most comfortable, because it's where I'll be for three-to-four years."