(CBS Local)- We’re just under three weeks away from the start of the 2021 NFL Draft in Cleveland, Ohio on Thursday, April 29. The three day event will see over 200 prospects have their dream of hearing their named called from the draft stage come true. For Ohio native Justin Hilliard, it would mark the beginning of a new journey in his home state where he first fell in love with the game.
Hilliard was born in Cleveland and raised in Cincinnati and was always following in his older brother C.J.’s footsteps. So, when C.J. began playing football in the third grade, Justin wanted to play as well. In the early days, that meant playing up a couple of grades on his brother’s team and in turn, getting knocked around a little bit.READ MORE: Former Texas A&M Quarterback Kellen Mond On 2021 NFL Draft: 'I Would Definitely Be Prepared' To Play As A Rookie
“Whatever team my brother was on, my parents just put me on that team. So I was playing on a third grade team as a first grader and just getting absolutely tossed around,” said Hilliard laughing. “I can’t say I loved it at first, but over the years, I built a love for it. The contact, the preparation, everything that came with it. It was a funny journey, up until I would say, high school baseball was my sport and football took over after that.”
Though he took his lumps early, Hilliard credits those early days with molding the toughness and fire that he plays the game with today.
“After you keep losing like that you have two options. You either quit or you find a way to win. I was kind of forced to find a way to win,” said Hilliard.
Hilliard’s high school football career saw him rise from the third team as a freshman to becoming a five-star prospect, ranked as the 35th best prospect nationally and the third-best at his position in his class. After committing to play for the hometown Buckeyes, his career hit a rough patch as he dealt with several injuries that kept him from making the kind of impact he hoped to in his first couple of years in Columbus. Looking back, he says that those times were the hardest he’s been through but it made him a better person overall.
“That was probably one of the hardest times of my life especially when I was dealing with these injuries because I was away from the game for so long, the game that I love so much. I think the hardest thing was that I saw myself playing at this high level but I wasn’t able to get there because of some injuries and different things,” said Hilliard. “That was a really hard time but how I was able to push through that with the support of my coaches and teammates, I think that made me a better person, better player, a better teammate.”
Once he was able to get on the field consistently, he started making the kind of impact he expected. In the stretch run of the 2020 season, he stood out making 25 tackles, five for loss, recovering a pair of fumbles and picking off a pass in the Buckeyes final three games against Northwestern, Clemson and Alabama. He continued that strong stretch into the Senior Bowl, drawing high praise from Director Jim Nagy.
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No player in 2021 draft helped himself more over past two months than @OhioStateFB LB Justin Hilliard (@JHilliard47). Former 5⭐️ overcame string of injuries to excel in CFP and was one of top performers Senior Bowl week. This drop & drive is exactly what NFL is looking for at LB. pic.twitter.com/9TMF7sgG8W
— Jim Nagy (@JimNagy_SB) February 11, 2021
Going through the draft process, Hilliard has been talking with former Buckeyes teammates as well as former Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly. Kuechly and Hilliard are alums of the same high school, St. Xavier, and Hilliard says that the NFL veteran has been a mentor of his since high school. He also points to Kuechly’s game as one of his favorite players to watch.
“I probably watch the most film on Luke Kuechly because he’s so fun to watch. If you watch him, he’s pointing out things before the play that no one else knows and you can see that happening. He’s the most fun to watch,” said Hilliard. “I don’t think I play like him, if I had to say someone I play like maybe Lavonte David, some Bobby Wagner, are some of the other guys I watch too. The way they play the game, the aggressive nature they hit with.”
With the Senior Bowl and Pro Day behind him, Hilliard says his biggest focus right now is on getting more comfortable at the inside linebacker spots after spending the last couple of years outside.
“Right now the biggest thing is the last two years I’ve played out in space at our Sam position. I want to be as versatile as possible, so I’m working really hard on getting back in the feel of things of being inside at the Mike and Will position,” said Hilliard. “It’s pretty similar but sometimes, the eyes and reads of what you’re seeing is a little different. I just want to keep working the game, increase my football IQ and get back in the feel of things being inside.”
The versatility that Hilliard brings to the table is part of the draw of his game. The other part? His drive and consistent effort.
“First and foremost is the way I play the game. The first thing I usually tell scouts and coaches is, it’s probably going to be impossible to find any play on film where I took off of that I’m not aggressively running to the ball,” said Hilliard. “The biggest part of my game and why I was able to make so many plays is the way I pursue the ball and the way I play the game. I think scouts were able to see that and coaches were able to see that on film.”MORE NEWS: NFL Draft 2021: Texas' Ta'Quon Graham Looks To Show His Versatility, Ability To Play Multiple Positions At Next Level
Hilliard’s hoping that film will lead to his name being called over the course of those three days late this month. The 2021 NFL Draft begins on Thursday, April 29 at 8 p.m. ET.