Justin Hilliard, an Ohio State fan for most of his life, was surprised in the winter of 2010 when he heard that older friend and fellow linebacker Jordan Hicks had picked Texas over the Buckeyes.
“We were neighbors, actually,” Hilliard said last week after committing as part of Ohio State’s 2015 recruiting class. “We went to the same grade school. I’ve always looked up to him. I know his top (options) were Ohio State and Texas, and USC, but I was really shocked he made the long trip to Texas.”
Hicks was the top linebacker in Ohio that year and among the nation’s elite. He was considered to be a big fish that got away from then-Ohio State coach Jim Tressel.
The next year, the Buckeyes lost another in-state lunker when linebacker Trey DePriest of Springfield chose Alabama.
That’s one of the reasons that Hilliard, who attends Cincinnati St. Xavier and is considered the nation’s No. 1 inside linebacker prospect by Rivals.com, was a major target for Urban Meyer and Ohio State’s coaching staff. It’s not just because Hicks and DePriest went elsewhere but also because the Buckeyes have since struggled to build reliable depth at linebacker.
Despite DePriest’s decision, they thought they still had hit it big in 2011 with Ryan Shazier, Conner Crowell and Curtis Grant. Shazier came in and played immediately, but after leading the team in tackles the past two seasons, he left this year and was a first-round draft pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Crowell had to give up the game because of medical concerns. As for Grant, Rivals.com ranked him No. 2 among overall prospects in the nation, behind defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, who went to South Carolina and was this year’s top overall draft pick, taken by the Houston Texans. But Grant has been a project for the Buckeyes, and only last year did he start to play up to some of those expectations.
In Meyer’s first class in 2012, the Buckeyes signed Joshua Perry, Camren Williams, David Perkins and Luke Roberts. Perry emerged as a starter last year, and Williams is expected to play a larger role this season, but Perkins and Roberts transferred before last season.
The Buckeyes appeared to make up for the shortcomings with the 2013 class, though, when they gained Mike Mitchell and Trey Johnson, projected as immediate impact players. But Johnson played mostly on special teams last season. Mitchell was redshirted, then transferred after spring semester.
Instead, Darron Lee, who was recruited as an athlete in the 2013 class, emerged this spring as a projected starter at linebacker, next to Grant and Perry.
Then there is Raekwon McMillan. He was the Hilliard of the 2014 recruiting cycle, considered the No. 1 inside-linebacker prospect in the nation by Rivals.com. McMillan enrolled early at Ohio State and looked better and better at spring practice, challenging Grant in the middle in a defense that is supposed to be simpler and more aggressive.
McMillan was the headliner of what several recruiting services considered one of the elite linebacker classes in the country. The Buckeyes also signed Dante Booker, Kyle Berger and Sam Hubbard. There is a sense that Ohio State has almost restocked the linebacker cupboard.
Yet as the recent past has shown, there are no guarantees, even for the ones who got away. Although DePriest has emerged as a defensive leader for Alabama going into this season, Hicks has had an injury-riddled career. He is headed into a fifth year at Texas after being granted a medical hardship.
Hilliard understands his rank in the 2015 class. He and Nick Conner of Dublin Scioto are the only linebackers, although Jerome Baker of Cleveland Benedictine might join them when he announces his choice on Friday.
But as Hilliard will be considered the leader, much will be expected.
“I know it’s going to be hard,” Hilliard said. “I believe in competition. Whoever is the best player out there is going to (play). I have an overall goal of making it to the NFL, so I believe that if you’re not good enough to start in college, you’re probably not good enough to play in the NFL.”
St. Xavier coach Steve Specht has told Hilliard there will be no guarantees of playing time at Ohio State. But he also expects Hilliard to flourish.
“He is so explosive,” Specht said. “He’s learning the game, and I think that’s what makes Justin’s upside so huge. He plays too fast, which is a great problem for a coach to have — we’re always trying to slow him down. That’s the thing, when Justin starts to figure it out and put it all together, he could be pretty special.”