During Ohio State’s fifth practice of the spring on March 23, Justin Hilliard tore his Achilles, leaving him uncertain whether he’d ever play another game for the Buckeyes again.
Eight-and-a-half months later, in the midst of his most productive season as a Buckeye yet, Hilliard sat in nearly the exact same spot on Ohio State’s indoor practice field and talked about how he will have the opportunity to play an additional year of college football.
Hilliard confirmed Wednesday that his request for a sixth year of eligibility has been granted by the NCAA, in recognition of the injuries that he has been plagued by since he arrived at Ohio State. In addition to his Achilles tear his spring, Hilliard tore his left bicep twice and his right bicep once as well as a meniscus tear in his knee, all of which combined for the equivalent of two years of injury rehabilitation.
The five-star recruit from Cincinnati didn’t play at all and redshirted his first year on campus, played in only three games in 2016 and missed the first two games of this season as a result of his injuries.
Even though the NCAA’s Division I Manual states that a waiver for a sixth year of eligibility may be granted in a situation in which a student-athlete “is deprived of the opportunity to participate for more than one season in his or her sport within the five-year period of eligibility for reasons that are beyond the control of the student-athlete or the institution,” Hilliard didn’t know whether his request would be approved until a couple of weeks ago, so he was “super relieved” when he received the news from Ohio State’s compliance department.
Hilliard said he still has to have “some important talks” with his family and Ohio State’s coaching staff, but as of now, he plans to stay with the Buckeyes for the 2020 season.
“I feel like I still have more to give,” Hilliard said. “Playing in the NFL is still a goal of mine, and I feel like obviously if I wanted to do that, I would probably need to do a sixth year.”
Coming out of high school, Hilliard looked like a player who could be on the fast track to the NFL – he was ranked as the No. 35 overall prospect in the class of 2015 – but his injuries changed that. Even in 2017 and 2018, when he was healthy for full seasons, he played primarily on special teams.
This year, though, Hilliard has finally earned a regular role in Ohio State’s defense as an outside linebacker in four-linebacker packages, all while continuing to play on multiple special teams units. He made the biggest play of his Buckeyes career to date when he recorded an interception in their closest game of the regular season against Penn State. He’s recorded three tackles for loss this season and two tackles in each of Ohio State’s last three games.
“I started a little late,” Hilliard said in reference to his recovery from the Achilles injury, “but I feel like these last probably four or five weeks, I feel like I’ve gotten a lot better.”
Ohio State is currently slated to lose only one linebacker after this season, Malik Harrison, but given that Harrison has played the most snaps of any Buckeye linebacker for each of the past two years, that could open the door for Hilliard to play a bigger role – the kind of role he’ll need to truly put himself on the radar of NFL scouts – and provide veteran leadership to Ohio State’s linebacker corps, along with fellow seniors Tuf Borland, Pete Werner and Baron Browning.
Staying at Ohio State for another year will allow Hilliard to continue to develop his game with the Buckeyes’ coaches – specifically co-defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, who also coaches the strongside linebackers like Hilliard and who Hilliard said has played a key role in his development this year – and to complete his master’s degree in consumer sciences, which he began working toward this semester.
For now, though, he’s focused on trying to finish strong this season – the season that was originally supposed to be his senior season – which continues against Wisconsin in Indianapolis on Saturday, when Hilliard and the Buckeyes will compete for their third straight conference title.
“It’s been a roller-coaster of a year, but yeah, it’s been a great year,” Hilliard said.