It had been a long time coming, but Wednesday it became official. Justin Hilliard was a Buckeye.
A four-star middle linebacker and the top-ranked recruit in the state of Ohio, Hilliard inked his national letter of intent to play for Ohio State Wednesday morning alongside 11 other high school seniors at Cincinnati St. Xavier.
Hilliard grew up rooting for the Buckeyes, but he put that fandom aside when going through the recruiting process, he said. The linebacker had a good relationship with head coach Urban Meyer, defensive coordinator Luke Fickell and special teams coordinator Kerry Coombs, but that wasn’t why he picked Ohio State either.
“When I went up there it was kind of the players and how close they were that attracted me,” the linebacker said Wednesday. “It was a big family feel. When they got on the field it was all competition, there were some beasts on the field, but when they got back they were best friends. Everyone was cool with each other and that was really what attracted me.”
Hilliard offered his verbal commitment to Ohio State in early July, but said he was excited to finally make things official on Wednesday. He did so along with nine other St. Xavier football players who committed to play in college.
While Hilliard was the most notable of those who signed letters in the high school library, the 6-0, 225-pound linebacker wasn’t an immediate star for St. Xavier. He spent his freshman season on the school’s developmental team, but grew into a role player his sophomore season. After Hilliard started some games at the end of that year, head coach Steve Specht said he began to realize the type of player the linebacker could be.
“I think it was really the development I saw between his sophomore year and his junior year – how hard he worked in the weight room and the weight he put on,” Specht said. “He grew up, he matured into his body and junior year you really saw what he could do on the field. He was so explosive. Every time someone asks me about Justin the only thing I can say is he is one of the most explosive players I have ever coached.”
That explosiveness made Hilliard the No. 2 middle linebacker prospect in the country and the No. 63 recruit overall, drawing the interest from schools around the country. Hilliard selected Ohio State over Alabama, Iowa (where his older brother C.J. is a running back), Michigan and Notre Dame, electing to stay close to home and play for the Buckeyes.
In a white shirt with a red tie, Hilliard donned an Ohio State ball cap at the signing ceremony, one that had the 2015 CFP National Championship logo along the side. While the linebacker committed to the Buckeyes long before that title was won, it affirmed his reason for doing so.
“It was definitely something exciting to watch, especially being a commit and watching the whole process from the Virginia Tech game all the way to the national championship,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons I committed is because I felt like Ohio State had a lot of momentum, they were going in the right direction and that only proves that I was right.”