In a group of talented Ohio State linebackers, it can be tough for a player to stand out. However, Justin Hilliard has managed to do exactly that.
After tallying 33 tackles and 5 tackles for a loss in six games in 2020, Hilliard earned an invitation to the Senior Bowl and now projects as a likely selection in the 2021 NFL draft.
Draft Wire had the chance to speak with Hilliard about his pre-draft process, his Senior Bowl experience, his versatility and more.
JI: You played in an OSU linebacker group that features three other prospects for the 2021 draft. What was it like, being a part of such a talented group, and what did that do for you and your teammates?
JH: Me and the linebacker crew that’s coming out for this draft class, we’ve been together for literally years. It’s such a cool journey we’ve been on, because if you would have heard anything about our linebacker core like, three years ago? You would’ve heard [that] we’re the worst unit to ever play college football of all time (laughs). I think from that point, we just bonded together, and instead of falling apart, we just got closer together. We just kept pushing each other, man.
I think after years of pushing each other and competing with each other… all of us – Tuf [Borland], Baron [Browning], me and Pete [Werner] – we’re super different compared to each other, but I think we let those differences fuel us. We’re super close. Every day, we made it a goal to push each other as hard as we can, and i think it got to the point where we were playing at the high level we were this year.
JI: With four linebackers for three spots, I imagine it could get competitive and potentially hostile, but it seems like you are all genuinely proud of each other’s successes, right?
JH: Oh, yeah. Don’t get me wrong; we competed hard as hell. It was at the end of the day, after practice, we were in the same room watching film, trying to get better because we knew we had the opportunity [to go pro]. It wasn’t just three guys who could play in the NFL; literally all four of us could play in the NFL. We just made it a goal to literally push each other the hardest we could, but at the same time, keep rooting for each other’s success.
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JI: You were definitely versatile in your alignment, so in talking with teams, is there a consensus on what spot they project you at in the pros?
JH: Not really. I’ve been hearing a bunch of things. A majority of teams I talk to probably have me inside, maybe at MIKE or WILL. I think a lot of defenses that run a 4-3 defense…the position I played a last year, you usually just play that with the safety, but I know I’m still capable of playing that spot. A bunch of different teams I’ve been studying maybe emphasize that SAM role a little bit more, but I feel like I’m able to play all three positions. I’m just excited to see where I fall up.
JI: You broke out and had a career year in 2020. What would you say you worked on the most prior to this year?
JH: Honestly, I’ve been hearing a lot of that, like there’s almost a certain change in my approach or play. My first two years, I felt like I wasn’t the player I was that I am today, but after two, three years at Ohio State, I flipped the switch, and I felt like from that point on, my approach has been the same. Even when I maybe wasn’t making 10 tackles in a playoff game, I was working to add as much value as I can. The reps I got were primarily on special teams and maybe a couple reps at linebacker, but I feel like I did that at a high level. This year, I feel like I just had more of an opportunity to showcase that.
JI: One thing I’ve noticed about you on film is how well you move. Can you walk me through what you’re reading and diagnosing, in coverage or run support, that allows you to move with as much speed as you do?
JH: That’s another thing, is I think even still, people read my injury list and cross off my athleticism, but I feel like if you watch my film, you know I can run with pretty much anyone in the country. I think the biggest thing for me this year or the past couple years making a step was working on my preparation: working on my eyes and keys. I think the biggest thing at my position SAM was I was reading everything; I was pretty much out of the box 85 percent of the time.
My keys were almost entirely on the tight end, running back and tackle. I feel like I was able to anticipate so much just by keying those three. As far as man coverage and things like that, this year I took a huge step up in my football IQ. When I was in man coverage, I feel like I knew what type of routes were coming and what routes to expect. I think that helped a lot.
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JI: That step up worked really well and led to you getting a Senior Bowl invitation. What did you take away from that experience in Mobile, and what was it like to work with NFL coaching staffs?
JH: Playing at the Senior Bowl was a huge goal of mine. Literally a few months and weeks going into that, I was checking my phone every day, waiting for the invite. As soon as I got the invite, I knew exactly what I wanted to show. I think the biggest thing I wanted to show first was my athleticism, so just locking everyone up in man coverage in one-on-ones, and then same thing in pass rush.
Then, the second thing I wanted to show was just my versatility. Just these last two years, I’ve played outside at the SAM position, but during the Senior Bowl, I made it an emphasis to work on MIKE and WILL. I was only a linebacker who played two positions, and during that Senior Bowl, I played MIKE and WILL that whole week. I just wanted to show off my versatility and show off that I can play all three positions.
JI: How do like to spend your free time outside of football?
JH: Now, honestly, I’ve become – I think quarantine for COVID made me – I’m kind of an outdoorsman guy. A good day for me is just waking up, I’ve been going to yoga a ton. I go to yoga, I go on a little hike. I have a two-year-old dog now, so if I don’t take him on a little hike, he literally goes nuts (laughs). I’m a little bit of an outdoorsman, and I like to try a bunch of new stuff. I’m pretty chill.
JI: I can imagine yoga helps out with clearing your mind, but also helping your flexibility and moving around on the field, right?
JH: Oh, yeah. When I started doing yoga, it was honestly after I tore my Achilles, I was like, ‘Woah, I really can’t have any more injuries’ (laughs). I was trying to do everything in my power to incorporate into my routine to avoid any type of injury. I have a whole mobility routine and go to yoga about three, four times a week now. So yeah, I think it helps a lot, but the biggest part of it for me was injury prevention.
JI: Let’s say I’m an NFL general manager. What would I be getting if I drafted you to my team?
JH: I think the biggest thing that I tell scouts is that if you guys were to take me, the biggest thing is the energy I bring, the energy I play with. I told scouts all the time: I promise you you won’t be able to find any reps – special teams, linebacker – where I took off. That style of play is contagious and can help any organization. I think that’s the biggest trait because honestly, I think it’s rare. If you watch film, I don’t think a lot of times, you see guys playing with that type of way I play. I think another thing is my versatility, athleticism…usually when they ask that question, I go on for days and try to tell them as much as I can (laughs). I think the biggest thing is just the way I play the game, man.