Valuable

It's a coach's job to try and recruit athletes better than the ones they already have. For three years, the Ole Miss coaches have been trying to recruit someone better than DB Mike Hilton. Guess what? It ain't happening.

When Mike Hilton committed to Ole Miss back in August of 2011 to then Ole Miss Coach Houston Nutt, there wasn't a whole lot of cause for celebration.

One, he was listed as 5-9, 174 pounds and was designated as a running back out of Tyrone, GA. Smallish running backs are, as they say, a dime a dozen.

Two, who in Mississippi had ever heard of the lightly-recruited prospect two states over? Recruiting excitement is generated by inking players "everyone" who follows this sport within a sport knows.

When Hugh Freeze took over the bottomed-out Rebel program in late 2011, with a February signing day looming and little time to work on that class, he decided to stick with Hilton.

One has to wonder, if Freeze had had a full year to recruit under his belt, if Mike would have even been on his radar.

As fate would have it, though, honoring Hilton's commitment was one of the best decisions Freeze has made in his short tenure.

"We envisioned him as a DB," said Hugh. "We did our research on him and found out the quality of kid he was and is and decided to go with him."

Hilton's signing in February and arrival to Ole Miss in the summer of 2012 went without much fanfare.

While Channing Ward, Issac Gross, Bo Wallace, Trae Elston, I'tavius Mathers and Jaylen Walton were getting the ink in that class, Hilton was just keeping his head down and doing what he had always done - working hard and playing football.

"I have always been like the underdog, the guy with not a lot of expectations," Mike smiles. "I just go out thee and do my best and do whatever it takes to help the team get better."

Mike made an impression on the Rebel coaches quickly in his first August camp leading up to the 2012 season.

"You could see it almost instantly," said Freeze. "He just had a knack for the game. He absorbs everything so quickly, rarely makes a mistake and he's a tough young man. He showed us quickly that he would stick his nose in there and fight."

As a true freshman, Hilton started five games and played in all 12, but it was the sixth game of the year - against Texas A&M and QB sensation Johnny Manziel - when Mike endeared himself to the Rebel Nation.

Hilton got his first start of the year and was tasked with spying Manziel, who would go on to win the Heisman Trophy that year.

Mike responded with two QB sacks and constant harassment that resulted in six Aggies turnovers, their highest on the season.

Late Manziel heroics spoiled the night, but Hilton became a mainstay, a go-to guy on the Rebel defense.

He played Husky and cornerback and started the rest of the year, doing whatever the coaches asked of him and doing it well.

"Our depth was poor that year and to have a true freshman come in and do what Mike did was pretty special," noted Rebel Defensive Coordinator Dave Wommack. "We learned early on that we could trust him to do anything we asked him to do on the back end of our defense."

In 2013, Hilton started 11 games and was fifth on the team in tackles with 52. He also had his first career interception.

"Mike was solid. Again, I go back to trust," said Wommack. "Really, we just didn't worry about him making a mistake. Coaches understand how important that is. We understand how important Mike is."

In spring, Mike - who can play any position in the secondary - was moved to cornerback. As expected, he took the position over.

Now, as game one of the 2014 season approaches rapidly, Hilton is the starting boundary corner and - in a pinch - the backup for Tony Conner at Husky.

"We know what we will get with Mike. Sure, I wish he was taller and bigger, but you can't measure heart and instincts with a tape measure," Dave added. "He's a sure tackler, he's assignment and technique sound and he gets the job done."

We lost count with how many Rebels are on various preseason watch lists for postseason honors.

Mike Hilton is not one of them, nor does he care.

"I've said it before and I'll say it again, the only thing I care about is the team getting better and winning games," he noted. "Whatever I can do to help that process along, that's what I will do."

A lot of players talk of that type of self-sacrifice, but Hilton walks the walk.

He has changed positions three times in his career and never a whimper.

When he was told he would be a corner last spring, he just went to work.

"I worked hard on my press coverage. I had never had to do that before at Husky or safety," he explains. "I'm very comfortable in press coverage now.

"I can get underneath the pads of taller receivers and use my lack of height to my advantage to get my hands on them."

When he was told he would also be playing some Husky, he went to work.

"I watch film with the corners one day and with the Husky group the next to make sure I am on top of everything and don't make mistakes when I am called on," Hilton stated.

Even though the cornerback slots have been hurt in August due to season-ending injuries to Tee Shepard and Carlos Davis, Mike feels the remaining players can produce and hold their own.

"I feel real comfortable with me and Senquez (Golson) and Derrick (Jones) and Kailo (Moore) and Kendarius (Webster) back there," he continued. "I am really impressed with the freshman (Webster). I knew about him before because we are from the same area and we have competed. He's going to be really good once he gets his feet wet.

"Kailo is also catching on quickly. He's never played corner before, but he's getting it down little by little."

Hilton is excited about the 2014 defense and all the possibilities it offers.

"Having C.J. Johnson back, along with Marquis Haynes, Robert (Nkemdiche), Issac (Gross), (Bryon) Benentt and the others, I think we are going to have a really good front four group no matter who is playing. I think we will get a great pass rush from them this year and all we have to do is hold up our end of the bargain on the back end," he said. "I think we are going to blitz a lot more this year because I think Coach Wommack trusts us on the back end more this year.

"I think we have a chance to be a special defense if we stay relatively healthy and are assignment sound."

No matter what Wommack decides to call or what personnel grouping he picks, Mike Hilton will be in the middle of the action.

"Mike is too valuable to us not to be in the mix prominently," Wommack closed. "We have several players we cannot afford to lose. Mike is one of them."

Mike Hilton = valuable.

He's proven it over and over and over again.


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