It’s not really clear what happened to Justin Hilliard, or what Justin Hilliard did that kept him on the bench for his first four seasons in Columbus. Ohio State doesn’t make that kind of information readily available, and while several injuries can be used to explain some of Hilliard’s inabilities to find starting time, that just doesn’t fully add up. Sure, two separate bicep injuries served as pretty big setbacks early in Hilliard’s career, but since then, he’s remained exclusively on special teams and as a situational player on defense. He recorded just 14 tackles in 2018, mostly in garbage time.
Perhaps most baffling is that when he has seen the field, Hilliard has mostly looked excellent. His instincts are great, he’s a natural at middle linebacker as a ball-hawk, a steady tackler, and it’s not exactly like the guys ahead of him this past year were lighting the world on fire.
There’s not a logical reason for the former five-star linebacker, a guy who — by all accounts, has never been in trouble at Ohio State and has proven himself to be at least a capable starter — is entering his fifth and final year at Ohio State on the outside of the starting lineup looking in at much younger players.
When there’s no logical reason on the outside, we may have to look inwards, which would likely mean looking at the coaching staff. Perhaps Bill Davis or Greg Schiano just didn’t want a bigger more traditional linebacker filling the middle, which would make sense until you see Tuf Borland play.
More distressing, and I think more likely, is the possibility that Justin Hilliard was a Luke Fickell recruit, and by the time Bill Davis arrived in Columbus, Hilliard had learned specific habits for playing linebacker that just didn’t fit with what Davis wanted. So, Davis went with younger, more malleable linebackers, and produced one of the worst statistical defenses Ohio State has seen in the 21st century.
If that is the case, Hilliard’s largest problems may be gone, because Davis and Schiano are no longer in Columbus. In their places are Al Washington and Greg Mattison, two coaches at least partially responsible for Devin Bush, the Michigan linebacker that, physically speaking, plays a whole lot like Hilliard.
While new management could be helpful for Hilliard, there is still the matter of establishing himself not only as a capable option, but as the best choice for middle linebacker on the roster. Because the other main middle linebackers on the team —Teradja Mitchell, Baron Browning, and Tuf Borland — are younger than Hilliard, he has an uphill battle. If the players are even, or near even, Ohio State will go with the younger option, and Hilliard will likely remain in a situational role; or we may even see a post-spring grad transfer for a chance at a starting job elsewhere.
The question is, as it has been his whole career, what does Justin Hilliard need to do to separate himself from the pack?
The number one thing Hilliard has going for him, and the place where he does have an advantage over his fellow linebackers, is in his understanding of the game, and his ability to react quickly. When he was on the field, he usually showed off an impressive knowledge of where he was on the field, an awareness of angles that other players lacked, and the ability to make plays on quick adjustments, which likely comes from his time under Fickell.
This is something that Ohio State’s overly-complicated defensive schemes in 2018 struggled with immensely, and under a much more reaction-based system, Hilliard may be the smart leader that the Buckeyes are looking for in the middle of the defense. While he didn’t have a ton of chances to flex his quickness in 2018, we did get to see it a few times, on plays like this one.
Here, despite being expected to play close to the line and blitz, Hilliard identifies the play action, drops as much as he can, and jumps up to get in the way of the pass. Ohio State had little to no linebacker help on passes across the middle in 2018 (because the linebackers were blitzing constantly and rarely in zone). That would’ve been the case here too, but because Hilliard knows what to look for, he can react quickly and make a play that wasn’t designed to happen. That’s what you need from you linebackers; adaptability.
On the very next play, Hilliard once again makes an adjustment, and while he doesn’t make the tackle, he’s a huge part of making this play. While his fellow linebackers overplay the sweep (the outside linebacker, Pete Werner, is supposed to set the edge here, which he does, but Borland overplays it), Hilliard is following the play, sheds a block, and knows to break off of his assignment short to fill the cutback lane. The extra body there prevents a big gain, and results in a quick tackle for a short gain.
Finally, earlier in the season, Hilliard showed off everything that could make him a special player on this play against Tulane. He reads the option immediately, pops outside, and shows an astounding amount of closing speed to get to the quarterback. Then, instead of waiting for the quarterback to come to him, he attacks, and makes a beautiful form tackle. This is an elite play.
That’s the kind of play that honestly makes Hilliard so interesting. He’s been put into a box as a slower, traditional middle linebacker because of the way that he looks, but honestly, in watching his film, I think he’s got pretty great quickness. He isn’t Darron Lee or Ryan Shazier, but for a middle linebacker, Hilliard has a pretty great athletic profile. He’s big enough to stuff the run, smart enough to read the play as it happens, and athletic enough to track the ball carrier or drop into coverage.
Is he as fast as Baron Browning? No. Is he as hard of a hitter as Teradja Mitchell? No. Is he as, uh, gritty as Tuf Borland? No. But Justin Hilliard is an experienced player, and a player that, while not able to make the jaw-dropping athletic plays of Browning or the massive hits of Mitchell, could provide a fairly young Buckeye defense with leadership and consistency. Is he the reincarnation of Curtis Grant — a former blue-chipper that just never popped enough to merit more playing time? Perhaps.
But after a year of constant, baffling mistakes, slow reactions, and poor angles from Ohio State’s linebacker, maybe a consistent, sure-handed leader is what the Buckeyes need. Hilliard could be surrounded with playmakers like Malik Harrison and Baron Browning, which would make up for his lack of “wow plays,” for lack of a better term. Does a new staff looking to make a splash go with the sure choice? Probably not. However, for the good of Ohio State’s defense, there may not be a better option than Hilliard, in his final shot to live up to expectations.