Justin Hilliard and the Fight to Stay Healthy to Provide Ohio State With Depth at Linebacker

By Eric Seger on March 29, 2017 at 8:35 am
Justin Hilliard's biceps have kept him from playing significant time at Ohio State but the Buckeyes see him taking the proper steps this spring.

Despite what his lofty recruiting ranking would suggest, Justin Hilliard's ability to be an impact college football player remains a mystery.

2017 Spring Preview

“We all had no idea what he could do because he’s been hurt for I believe two years now,” Urban Meyer said on Tuesday. “And it’s time.”

Hilliard wore an orange, non-contact practice jersey during Ohio State's sixth spring practice, a result of what his head coach said was a recent strain of one of his biceps muscles. The highest rated prospect in the program's 2015 recruiting class — and the group's only 5-star prospect — the Buckeyes expected him to contribute right away in some capacity and push for a larger bit of playing time after exits by Darron Lee, Joshua Perry and Raekwon McMillan.

It hasn't happened yet. A tear of his biceps muscle forced a redshirt two years ago, then Hilliard only played in three games last season (mostly on special teams) before he ripped the same muscle on the other arm in September. The injury carries with it a six-month recovery and rehabilitation period after surgery.

Like Meyer said, the Buckeyes haven't really seen what he could do at the college level because he can't stay on the field.

Early in spring ball, though, Meyer and new linebackers coach Billy Davis like what they see from the St. Xavier product — the one who wears Chic Harley's legendary No. 47.

“He’s been very impressive the first few days and he’ll be in the mix,” Meyer said.

Davis added last week that Hilliard is  “doing great.”

Davis has extensive experience in the NFL, having coached 26 years with eight different franchises. One of the names Davis brought up when asked about Hilliard was D'Qwell Jackson, a linebacker he coached in Cleveland with the Browns in 2011 and 2012.

“I had D’Qwell Jackson with the Cleveland Browns and he had popped both biceps also. I shared that with Justin and D’Qwell has gone on to have a great Pro Bowl career in the NFL so there’s no issue with the biceps at all,” Davis said. “Sometimes you’re snake bit like D’Qwell Jackson was and Justin is having a good start to spring ball right now.”

Jackson played for the Indianapolis Colts last season and is currently a free agent. Since missing most of the 2009 season and the entirety of the following year with his injuries, Jackson has played in every game except four. He led the AFC in tackles both in 2011 and 2014, making plenty of impact plays on a weekly basis.

Can that be Hilliard's ceiling? The potential is there considering he was the first 5-star recruit ever to redshirt under Meyer at Ohio State and ranked the No. 2 outside linebacker nationally in 2015. A force at St. Xavier High School in Cincinnati, Hilliard just felt like a future captain when the Buckeyes signed him.

Hilliard was a must-have recruit for Luke Fickell and Ohio State in 2015.

Only he hasn't been able to show it. Meyer said holding Hilliard out of the hitting portion of practice on Tuesday was just a precaution — there is no need to risk another injury in March.

“We're just slowing him down for a couple days,” Meyer said.

The Buckeyes are pretty set with their starters at linebacker. Chris Worley started all 13 games in 2016 on the outside and is moving over one spot in place of the departed McMillan. Dante Booker won the other outside linebacker job out of camp last fall before hurting his knee in the season opener. Jerome Baker exploded on the scene in his place and hasn't looked back.

Both players return for 2017 and along with Worley provide a terrific core three for Davis's first season in Columbus. The depth behind them, though, is the question. And something that Hilliard can provide, should his body allow it.

Ohio State needs guys like Hilliard, Keandre Jones, Malik Harrison and others to step forward in the event one of the starters goes down with an injury. Last season proved it could happen at any time. The Buckeyes need someone to step in seamlessly like Baker did.

Jackson thrived in the NFL once he got his body right and it cooperated. Davis thinks Hilliard can do the same.

“For Justin Hilliard to know that there’s a guy out there in D’Qwell Jackson who has torn both biceps two different years in a row and then went on to be in the Pro Bowl, that relieves him a little bit of anxiety and he can go play football,” Davis said.

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