The Ohio State Buckeyes have an impressive contingent of linebackers heading to the NFL. While Baron Browning, Pete Werner, and Tuf Borland have all received attention, is Justin Hilliard an under-the-radar prospect in this 2021 NFL Draft class?
Justin Hilliard NFL Draft Player Profile
- Position: Linebacker
- School: Ohio State
- Current Year: Graduate Senior
- Height: 6’0 1/2″
- Weight: 227 pounds
Tony Pauline’s Justin Hilliard Scouting Report
Positives: Talented three-down linebacker coming off a career campaign. Quick to read and diagnose, takes proper angles to the action, and breaks down well, using his hands to protect himself. Keeps the action in front of him, doesn’t get caught out of position and flows well to the play. Gets depth on pass drops and quickly picks up coverage assignments.
Negatives: Displays average speed in pursuit and struggles catching ball handlers from the back side. Possesses average size. Has just one year of starting experience.
Analysis: Hilliard turned in a terrific season and went from non-entity in the scouting community to draftable prospect. He offers potential at several linebacker positions and will be an inexpensive utility defender at the next level.
Justin Hilliard Player Profile
Although he’s flying inconspicuously in this 2021 NFL Draft class, Hilliard was hot property as a defensive dominator at St. Xavier High School. The Cincinnati resident put together an incredible junior season, amassing 76 tackles, 4 sacks, and 7 pass breakups. His performances led to a wild recruiting process.
A five-star recruit who was ranked as the best player in Ohio, the third overall linebacker in the class received almost 40 offers. Although the family lived in Cincinnati, Ohio State wasn’t a clear-cut destination for the star linebacker. His brother played at Iowa, so the Hawkeyes were a consideration, as were Notre Dame. However, he committed to Ohio State prior to his senior season. It was a major coup for the Buckeyes’ recruiting class.
With his future secured, Hilliard set about starring in his senior season for St. Xavier. He didn’t disappoint, exciting Ohio State fans with a season that earned first-team All-State honors. Furthermore, he was a finalist for the Dick Butkus Award and was named the Division I Defensive Player of the Year. He was also invited to the US Army All-America Game but didn’t play due to a knee injury.
Hilliard’s college football career at Ohio State
Unfortunately for the Ohio State linebacker, injuries would come to define his career. Hilliard was forced to miss his freshman season in 2015 after tearing his biceps. He made his debut in 2016 against Bowling Green but played just three games before another bicep injury ended his season.
He finally saw the field with some consistency in 2017. Hilliard played in 14 games — making 14 tackles — but his role was focused on special teams. Tying the team lead for special-teams tackles, the Ohio State linebacker continued to have a large special-teams role in 2018. He also added 20 tackles and 2 pass breakups as a rotational linebacker.
Injury would once again disrupt Hilliard’s career in 2019. An Achilles injury suffered during spring practice interrupted his preparations for the season. Despite this, he made three starts at linebacker, two of which came against Wisconsin. Although he played in fewer games than the previous season, he registered 3 tackles for loss. Meanwhile, he secured his first college interception against Penn State.
Finally fully healthy, Hilliard had somewhat of a breakout season in his final year as an Ohio State linebacker. He secured career-highs in tackles (33) and tackles for loss (5). He added a second career interception and had his first career forced fumble in the season opener against Rutgers. Coming up big in the most important games, the interception against Northwestern helped Ohio State win the Big Ten Championship Game. Two of his tackles for loss came in the National Championship defeat to Alabama, with one coming in the win over Clemson that got them there.
Justin Hilliard’s best fits in the 2021 NFL Draft
Hilliard’s performances toward the end of the season have put the Ohio State linebacker on the 2021 NFL Draft radar. Furthermore, he impressed at the 2021 Senior Bowl. The concerns over his injury history will ensure he doesn’t climb too high up draft boards. However, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him selected on Day 3.
He brings extensive special-teams experience and the versatility to play both inside and outside linebacker. Some team fits that could add a linebacker in the 2021 NFL Draft include the Cleveland Browns, Kansas City Chiefs, Las Vegas Raiders, and Detroit Lions.
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Oliver Hodgkinson is a staff writer for Pro Football Network. You can follow him on Twitter at @ojhodgkinson.