But the face of the class arrived about three months later when Cincinnati St. Xavier four-star linebacker Justin Hilliard committed to the Buckeyes. The No. 1 middle linebacker in the nation – not to mention the top prospect in Ohio – chose Ohio State over Alabama, Iowa, Michigan and Notre Dame in a ceremony at his school July 2.
Ohio State didn’t always lead in the race for his services, and the Buckeyes had to hold off schools that resonated with his faith (Hilliard is Catholic) and his family (his older brother, C.J., is a freshman running back at Iowa). At the end of the day, though, Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer reeled in a prospect he desperately needed.
“If Coach Meyer wants somebody, Coach Meyer’s going to get that somebody,” said St. Xavier head coach Steve Specht, who spent his senior year at St. Xavier being coached by Meyer, then a defensive backs coach for the Bombers.
At his announcement ceremony, Hilliard repeatedly mentioned that the people in the state of Ohio and at Ohio State won him over. It brought to mind the famous phrase used by legendary Buckeyes coach Woody Hayes, who said that “you win with people.”
“I really didn’t notice it until I went on some other college visits how genuine the people are and how passionate the fans are at Ohio State (compared to those other places),” Hilliard told BuckeyeSports.com. “When I went on my last two Ohio State visits, I had time to build relationships, especially with the 2014 class. Those were some of the greatest guys I met on recruiting trips, and they were just being genuine with me. I thought I fit in really well with the guys.”
It was incredibly important for the Buckeyes to land Hilliard, who was a top prospect at a position of need. Perhaps just as importantly, he hails from an area that Ohio State has at times struggled to recruit, and bringing him aboard was a victory against schools that have a record of going into Cincinnati and poaching Ohio products.
“Even if you don’t include all the great things he can do on the field, symbolically, Ohio State would like to keep the top guy in the state at home,” Scout.com recruiting analyst Allen Trieu told BSB. “To lose a top-ranked in-state kid to some of the schools that were recruiting him like Notre Dame or Michigan is not something Ohio State wants to do. It’s huge to get him.”
Originally, Hilliard had not planned to announce so early, with seven months remaining until National Signing Day when he made his selection. However, the 6-0, 225-pound prospect announced at the Nike Training Football Camp in Columbus on June 1 that he was moving up his recruiting timeline in order to give him a chance to recruit some of the top prospects in the nation to join him at his eventual school of choice, which happened to be Ohio State.
Less than 10 minutes after he put on the red Block “O” hat at his announcement ceremony, he watched on a laptop computer as St. Paul (Minn.) Cretin-Derham Hall four-star defensive end Jashon Cornell announced that he would join Hilliard in Columbus. The duo met as sophomores in high school, but their friendship intensified over the course of the recruiting process. After the NFTC event in June, both players were dropping hints on Twitter that they’d like to play at the same school.
Announcing on that date gave both players a chance to head to The Opening camp in Beaverton, Ore., a one-week invitation-only camp that hosts the best prospects in the nation, as Ohio State commits. It was the first chance for Hilliard to try out his newfound role as a recruiter, and he had some fun with it by putting an Ohio State hat on Berea (Ky.) Madison Southern four-star prospect Damien Harris, the No. 1 running back in the country who has Ohio State in his final five.
“It’s just fun,” Hilliard said. “I want to win a national championship, and I think in order to do that you’ve got to have that elite talent. It’s also good for the fans to bring back one of the top classes to Ohio. Going in, there were certain guys I wanted to have who are good people off the field but also some beasts on the field.”
It’s still hard to actually determine how much prospects help in the recruiting process compared to, say, Meyer going on a home visit and flashing his skills as one of the nation’s best recruiting closers. With that being said, there’s nothing to lose and perhaps plenty to gain from having a face of the class who is very vocal about his love of Ohio State.
“If you’re going to have a face of the recruiting class, he’s certainly got all the things you would want,” Trieu said. “I think you like to have a guy who’s active on social media, which he is. He’s a good communicator and a likable guy, which helps when he’s up on visits talking to recruits or talking to recruits on the phone or on Twitter. How much of an impact does that really have? It’s hard to quantify. But if you want a guy in that spot, you’d be hard-pressed to find a kid that’s more qualified than Justin.”
To be recruiting as an Ohio State football commit is especially surreal given where Hilliard was just three years ago as an incoming high school freshman. Back then, baseball was his top sport, and his freshman year of football at St. X didn’t do much to change that.
A smaller player back then, Hilliard didn’t catch the eye of Specht when he first showed up to play for the Bombers, and he didn’t even rate as one of the top players in his freshman class early on.
“I have a blue squad and a white squad freshman year, and he played on the white squad, which is the developmental kids,” Specht said. “That’s how much he’s grown and developed.”
It wasn’t until Indiana gave Hilliard his first offer after his sophomore year that his recruitment really took off, and Specht said it wasn’t until the end of that season that the coaches realized they had something special on their hands. Once his body caught up to his mind – Hilliard is a member of his school’s chess club and has been playing since his father taught him when he was young – he truly blossomed on the field.
Of course, former St. Xavier star Luke Kuechly is also an alum of the freshman white team, and he went on to win the Butkus (top linebacker), Lombardi (top lineman or linebacker) and Nagurski (best defensive player) trophies at Boston College before being named AP Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2012 and AP Defensive Player of the Year in 2013 with the Carolina Panthers.
Hilliard isn’t shy about chasing expectations, and one of the reasons he chose Ohio State is because of its tradition at linebacker. He wears No. 47 in part because A.J. Hawk wore it, and he plans to wear the retired number of three-time All-American Chic Harley at Ohio State just as Hawk did.
“I know they were rated (Linebacker University) by ESPN,” Hilliard said. “Just looking at all the guys who have been there and worked hard to get where they are is incredible – guys like A.J. Hawk and James Laurinaitis. I’ve always looked up to guys like them, especially A.J. Hawk. That’s one of the reasons I wear the number 47 and will be wearing it in college. I definitely look up to those guys."
On the field, he has a reputation as a big hitter, and Trieu described Hilliard’s film as “violent.” Off the field, though, his demeanor matches up with that of a charismatic guy whom teammates want to play with – and whom others might want to join at the college level.
“Lots of smiles,” Specht said when asked about Hilliard’s personality. “Justin’s got a smile that lights up the room. He’s quiet. I think in a lot of respects he seems a little introverted, but he works his tail off, he leads by example. He’s just a great kid. He makes you a better person.”