When Justin Hilliard began feeling some soreness in his Achilles tendon this spring, he asked fellow Ohio State linebacker Tuf Borland what it felt like when he ruptured his Achilles last spring.
“He literally described it as like someone smacking you with a bat in your calf,” Hilliard said.
At the time, Hilliard didn’t think much of the pain. It’s not uncommon for football players to have soreness in their Achilles, so the fifth-year senior linebacker thought it was something he would be able to push through and keep playing.
During the Buckeyes’ fifth practice of the spring, however, Hilliard found out for himself what Borland experienced last spring.
“I was doing (a pass-rush drill) against J.K. (Dobbins), and I kind of pushed off on it, and I had that same feeling,” Hilliard said. “I literally thought (running backs coach Tony) Alford kicked me in the back of my heel.”
As it turned out, no one had kicked Hilliard. He, too, had ruptured his Achilles tendon – the band of tissue that connects the calf to the heel. Hilliard had to be carted off the practice field, and it’s now uncertain how many opportunities he’ll have to ever play or practice for the Buckeyes again.
A torn Achilles is notoriously one of the most difficult injuries for an athlete to recover from, sometimes taking up to a year or even longer for an athlete to get back to full strength from the injury. That said, Hilliard has an example right in front of him that gives him reason for optimism that he will be able to get back on the field this year; Borland made it back onto the field in time for last year’s season opener, less than six months after rupturing his Achilles last March.
It’s only natural for Hilliard to use that as motivation to try to get back on the practice field even faster.
“At the Woody, we’re always competing,” Hilliard said. “Why not do it in rehab?”
Hilliard said he has started jogging in water, and is hoping to be able to start running on land again in the next couple months.
Unfortunately for Hilliard, rehabbing from injuries has become an all too familiar part of his career at Ohio State. The five-star recruit from Cincinnati was sidelined for the majority of his first two years at Ohio State due to biceps injuries and has started just one game at linebacker – last season against Minnesota – in his Ohio State career.
Hilliard has been a core special teams player for the Buckeyes for the past two seasons, but he had hoped to earn a bigger role on defense in his final season of eligibility. Now, he could enter the fall with uncertainty about whether he’ll be able to play at all.
With a new group of defensive coaches including new linebackers coach Al Washington and new co-defensive coordinators Greg Mattison and Jeff Hafley, Hilliard had a chance to compete his way into a bigger role this spring. In a deep linebacker room, Hilliard’s chances of earning a spot on the two-deep depth chart will be hurt by the practice time he has missed, even if he is able to play this fall.
Hilliard is confident, though, that he can make an impact in Ohio State’s new defense – which is designed to be simpler for the players, allowing them to play fast and for more players to potentially earn snaps playing specific roles within packages – once he is healthy enough to play again.
“I feel like I can contribute hopefully as fast as I can get back,” Hilliard said. “I love the new defense. Guys are playing fast. There’s so many different variables, so many different ways you can make an impact in this new defense.”
Hilliard came into Ohio State with aspirations of being an early-round NFL draft pick, and his goal is still to play at the next level. With the injuries he has suffered throughout his Ohio State career, though, Hilliard has come to understand that he also needs to be prepared for the possibility that his life after football could start sooner than later.
Knowing that, Hilliard has tried to take full advantage of the off-field opportunities he has been afforded through Ohio State’s Real Life Wednesdays program. Hilliard graduated from Ohio State with a degree in marketing this spring, has interned with Northwestern Mutual and Covelli Enterprises and just this past week, participated in a two-day externship with four of his Ohio State teammates at the WWE Performance Center.
“I think coming in as a freshman, obviously, you’re not really thinking about this kind of stuff,” Hilliard said after participating in the football team’s job fair on Friday. “You’re thinking NFL, NFL, that’s the main goal over everything. And it hit me my sophomore year, when I got my second injury, like ‘Oh my god, I got to start figuring out what I want to do after football,’ whenever it would come to an end.”
On the football field, Hilliard’s time at Ohio State hasn’t gone the way anyone expected. Regardless of what might ultimately happen this year, though, Hilliard is glad he’s had the opportunity to be a part of the Ohio State football team because of the memories he’s made with his teammates and the off-field opportunities that the program has helped facilitate.
“It’s been a frustrating four years, but at the same time, I wouldn’t give it up for anything,” Hilliard said. “The people I’ve met, the times I’ve had, all the experiences, I wouldn’t give it up for anything.”