CINCINNATI – As the calendar flipped to the spring and summer months, the decision became as clear as the sunny skies: Justin Hilliard was destined for Ohio State.
On Wednesday, the five-star linebacker ended the recruiting process seven months before National Signing Day, spurning his brother at Iowa and mystique at Notre Dame, to become a Buckeye.
“I’ve always been an Ohio State fan. It was a pretty easy choice,” Hilliard said. “They’re a winning program. I believe a national championship is coming for us. I’m really excited about that.”
Five minutes later, Ohio State received a commitment from another five-star. This time it was Cretin-Derham Hall defensive end Jashon Cornell. Together, Hilliard and Cornell represent one of the biggest single-day recruiting coups in program history.
The defensive duo is already targeting a smorgasbord of high-profile recruits. Matthew Burrell (offensive lineman), Damien Harris (running back) and Josh Sweat (defensive end) were identified by Hilliard and Cornell as top priorities. Urban Meyer can take the rest of the summer off.
“We’ve had guys on our radar,” Hilliard said. “I guess now it’s just a matter of time for us to go out and start recruiting.”
“We’re coming for you,” added Cornell.
The stated goal from Hilliard is to secure the nation’s No. 1-ranked recruiting class.
Mark Porter, director of ScoutingOhio.com, recently referred to Hilliard as one of the “most explosive linebackers to come out of Ohio in recent memory."
“Hilliard can dominate as a pass rusher because of his great get off and first step,” Porter said. “He can also be a huge asset in pass coverage because of his speed to match up with running backs and tight ends. He has great all around football ability and is a top-five player in Ohio on just about everyone’s list.”
Hilliard played seven games last season for perennial power St. Xavier until a foot injury derailed his junior year. He recorded 76 tackles, seven tackles for a loss, four sacks, an interception and a fumble recovery.
The 6-foot-2, 235-pound Hilliard is rated among the 50 best players nationally and the top outside linebacker. But Hilliard and St. Xavier head coach Steve Specht believe he projects as an inside linebacker once his body fills out and he becomes acclimated with the college game.
It’s no secret how Meyer feels about the linebackers. In his first two seasons at Ohio State, he constantly harped about the inadequacy and underdevelopment at the position. Aside from Ryan Shazier, production at linebacker has been underwhelming.
But changes are imminent. McMillan, Darron Lee and Curtis Grant instilled confidence in Meyer and Luke Fickell during the spring, and Kyle Berger and Dante Booker enrolled for summer workouts.
“I think Justin needs to worry about the best Justin can be,” Specht said. “Everyone wants to play as a freshman. The fact of the matter is they’re recruiting better than you every year. Not that they always get better than you, but that’s what they recruit.
“If you don’t work hard to be the best you can be, playing time is a non-issue. Justin just needs to focus on getting better, having a great senior year, continuing to work hard in the offseason and prepare himself. If he prepares himself correctly, good things will happen for him. He controls how hard he works, not playing time.”
Relationships were the driving force in Hilliard’s decision. At the Nike Football Training Camp in Columbus last month, he said personal connections with coaches and teammates would be the biggest factor in determining where he attended college. Nothing changed in the past month.
On his last visit to Ohio State, Hilliard said conversations with coaches and players were natural and didn’t even touch on football. The comfort level was no match for other suitors.
“I really wanted to go out and see other schools,” said Hilliard, who confessed his bedroom is decked out in Ohio State memorabilia. “Staying in my home state wasn’t a big thing in the beginning. I got to see a bunch of great schools in the process.”
Hilliard admitted – with a toothy grin – that the Ohio State coaches used the home state angle as a selling point.
Where some dread and anxiety existed was Hilliard telling his big brother, C.J., a freshman running back at Iowa, that they wouldn’t be continuing their careers in tandem.
“It was hard,” Justin said. “He wants me to do what’s best for me.”
Said C.J.: “I told him to just follow his heart. I said if you like Iowa, go to Iowa. If you like Ohio State, go to Ohio State. If you like Cincinnati, go to Cincinnati. Go with your gut feeling. You can’t go wrong.”
National Signing Day is Feb. 4, but the recruiting action will only intensify until then. Linebacker Jerome Baker, from Cleveland Benedictine, announces his commitment next Wednesday and is thought to favor the Buckeyes.
A conversation with Hilliard could seal the deal.