Few players enter the college ranks with the undeniable talent of Justin Hilliard.
When Hilliard committed to the Buckeyes back in the summer of 2014, he was the top player in the state, the consensus top player in the nation at his position, and the highest-rated player in Ohio State's entire 2015 recruiting class.
The hype surrounding Hilliard was nearly immeasurable – unless you're counting how long our servers were down after his announcement. If any player was a sure thing, it was him.
"I feel like I haven't slowed down a bit."– Justin Hilliard
But then came the injuries.
Hilliard suffered a torn bicep during his first season in Columbus, forcing him to redshirt. He then played just three games the following season before tearing the same muscle in his other arm. Hilliard said it happened once more for a total of three bicep tears in three years.
But now, Hilliard full-go and completely healthy during spring practice for the first time in his Buckeye career.
"I feel really good," Hilliard said with a smile after the team's Wednesday practice. "This is actually my first spring just not being in the rehab room.
It means so much, just because I know what I've been through, just kind of pushing through that, some of the difficulties – not only physically but mentally. It means a lot to just be out here in the spring."
But Hilliard isn't just out of the rehab room, he's fighting for a starting spot, and is one of the favorites to earn it after Tuf Borland went down with an achilles injury earlier this spring. Linebackers coach Billy Davis said Hilliard is running with the ones at the MIKE linebacker position during practice.
"He missed a lot of reps with those injuries – and I think people lose sight of that – but Justin Hilliard, right now, has had probably one of the better springs," Davis said.
Those missed reps certainly hurt Hilliard's development, but his natural talent didn't just dissolve. He feels despite the setbacks, he's still every bit of the five-star talent he was coming out of high school – and then some.
Hilliard said he's "so much further along" now than he was in high school – both mentally and physically – and he's still the elite athlete the Buckeyes recruited.
"All my injuries had nothing to do with my legs," Hilliard said. "I feel like I haven't slowed down a bit."
This spring is Hilliard's chance to prove it on the field. And along with his health, Hilliard has regained his confidence. He's sat idle for too long – he's ready to make an impact.
"He’s ready to go," Davis said. "The injuries do not factor in right now. They don’t factor. He’s back."