COLUMBUS, Ohio — July 2, 2014, was a great day for Ohio State football.
With both commitment announcements airing back-to-back on ESPN.com, linebacker Justin Hilliard and defensive lineman Jashon Cornell both committed to Ohio State. Both players were 5-star prospects in ESPN’s rankings, giving a huge boost to the Buckeyes’ fledgling 2015 recruiting class. Hilliard finished as a 5-star in the 247Sports composite rankings, while Cornell was a 4-star and top-100 recruit.
Since then, however, injuries and a position change have kept either player from living up to the immense hype that surrounded their arrival. Hilliard has torn biceps muscles twice and also has torn a meniscus. He missed his entire first season and played just three games in his redshirt freshman campaign in 2016. Cornell also redshirted his first season as he transitioned from defensive end to defensive tackle, and a hernia in his second season limited him to just five games. However, the pair stayed the course and kept battling to get healthy and see the field.
“We both love it up here,” Hilliard said. “I think the biggest thing is staying positive. The second you starting feeling bad for yourself is when bad things start happening.”
Each player had better luck with health in 2017, with Hilliard playing 14 games of primarily special teams action and Cornell playing 13 games in a reserve role on the defensive line. Heading into their fourth season, the unlucky pair of former elite recruits seem to finally be getting some breaks that could lead to big opportunities.
After backing up Chris Worley and Tuf Borland at middle linebacker in 2017, Hilliard is now the first-team middle linebacker in spring practice thanks to Worley’s graduation and Borland’s Achilles injury. While understandably upset at the reason the opportunity came about, this is Hilliard’s chance to show the coaching staff that he needs to be on the field.
“I can’t ask for anything more from him,” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said. “He’s one of my favorite guys because he just goes as hard as he can.
“Like I told you, I’m a fan. I push that a little bit. He’s a guy that’s made some mistakes on defense when he’s in there, and he’s just fighting through. The light is coming on, and he’s doing pretty good.”
With four defensive ends leaving Ohio State for the NFL, an opportunity opened up for Cornell. The Buckeyes only have three scholarship defensive ends this spring, and the recruits who arrive in June will need time to acclimate to the college game. As a former defensive end who didn’t get too big at defensive tackle, Cornell was an obvious choice to switch back.
He’s spent the spring working alongside Nick Bosa, Chase Young and Jonathon Cooper at end, and Ohio State’s defensive end rotations would seemingly guarantee him a big role this fall if he stays healthy.
“Coach Meyer was telling [the team] it’s not about being patient anymore,” Cornell said. “You’re up. It’s your turn. You’re here to play. I know I’ve been waiting and waiting, but my opportunity is now and I have to take it.”
After bonding on the recruiting trail and announcing their commitments together, Hilliard and Cornell have been roommates through their college careers. They’ve shared triumphs and struggles together, but 2018 could be the year they finally get a chance to show what they can do.
“It’s really cool,” Hilliard said. “We came in here together, committed on the same day. We’ve been really close since probably sophomore year of high school and we went through the same struggles as each other. We’ve been roommates since freshman year and ever since we’ve been pushing each other to get past it and stay positive and things like that. To be on the field with him is such a blessing.”