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Ohio State’s highest-ranked recruit of the 2015 class has battled injuries for much of his career, but now has one last shot to make an impact.
“The whole situation last year, I was just so glad I was able to find out [about the sixth-year waiver] mid-season, so I was able to enjoy those last relationships with guys in my class, and then coming back this year is just such a blessing. All the injuries I’ve been through, this opportunity, I feel like, is so good for me.”
Justin Hilliard has been through a lot during his Ohio State career. The linebacker was the highest-ranked recruit in Ohio State’s 2015 class, but injuries have kept Hilliard from living up to the hype so far. Hilliard started to show his talents last year, seeing the field primarily in four linebacker sets against run-heavy offenses. The highlight of Hilliard’s 2019 season came in the fourth quarter against Penn State, when his interception changed the game.
Heading into last season, it looked like 2019 would be the last chance Hilliard would have to prove himself at the college level, but then he found out about the possibility of a sixth-year of eligibility. Hilliard was eventually granted another season of college football, then the question came as to if he would transfer to another program where he could see more playing time. Hilliard said that he never seriously considered transfer, instead opting to finish his college career right where he started it.
With a depth chart that is loaded at linebacker, it won’t be easy for Hilliard to find playing time, but he is ready to earn every snap that the coaching staff puts him on the field for. Last year allowed Hilliard to regain some of his confidence on the field, and now he is looking to make the extra year of college football he was given count. While his career in Columbus has been rocky, Hilliard is looking to end his time with the Buckeyes on a high note.
“That’s why we came here — we wanted to be challenged. Just do the work to get where you want to be.”
How quickly things can change. Just a few years ago the Ohio State linebackers were looked at as the weak link of the defense. Now the Buckeyes are stocked with depth at linebacker. Earlier this weak it was announced that Baron Browning had been working at the Sam and Will linebacker positions after splitting time at the Mike linebacker spot with Tuf Borland last year. Pete Werner started last year at the Sam linebacker spot, and Justin Hilliard was working earlier this week at the same position as Werner.
As if that quartet of linebackers weren’t strong enough, Ohio State also has juniors Dallas Gant, Teradja Mitchell, and K’Vaughn Pope hungry to get on the field. The trio saw some time on the field in 2019, but they are working hard to get on the field even more in 2020. Most linebackers would have probably entered the transfer portal after seeing how much competition they had for playing time heading into their junior seasons, but Gant, Mitchell and Pope know that to be the best, they have to compete with the best.
It also doesn’t hurt that Ohio State has a tremendous linebackers coach like Al Washington on staff. Browning was in the same position as Gant, Mitchell, and Pope last year, entering his junior season having not seen all that much playing time in his first couple years in Columbus. Browning broke out last year and showed exactly why he was one of the highest-ranked linebackers in the country coming out of high school.
The competition at linebacker is only going to make the Ohio State defense better. Not only do the Buckeyes have three major contributors from last year’s team returning, but they have a number of others who are ready to show their talents. This will not only allow the Buckeyes to keep their linebackers fresher because they have guys who are capable of making plays, but they will see the cream rise to the top and be able to throw their best talents on the field for every play. It’s going to be another long season for opposing offenses, because they’ll have to go against one of the best linebacker units in the country.
“It’s a really special week going back to Minnesota. We, as a team, know we have something special and we can bring that on the ice.”
Ohio State’s women’s hockey team has their eyes on the prize. In last weekend’s WCHA Quarterfinals, the Buckeyes swept Minnesota State in Columbus. Now Ohio State heads to Minneapolis for the WCHA Frozen Four. Standing between the fifth-ranked Buckeyes and the WCHA Championship Game is third-ranked Minnesota, who the Buckeyes split the regular season series with 2-2.
The winner of this weekend’s WCHA Championship will earn an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. Ohio State could earn an at-large bid to the tournament even if they aren’t able to win the conference tournament, but the Buckeyes don’t want to leave their postseason hopes to chance. Saturday’s opponent for the Buckeyes was the 2019 NCAA runner-up, and have won seven national titles since 2000.
The Buckeyes are going to need goaltender Andrea Braendli to continue her stellar play, as she’ll be going against a Minnesota team that has three of the top 10 point scorers in the WCHA. The Swiss goalie is 18-5-5 this year with a 1.93 goals against average and a .924 save percentage. Braendli can’t afford any miscues, since the Buckeyes will be trying to get pucks past Minnesota goalie Sydney Scobee, who is sixth in the country with a 1.61 goals against average.
Ohio State enters Saturday’s game unbeaten in six straight games. The Buckeyes will be up against it this weekend, having to take on a Minnesota team that will be playing at home. As if that wasn’t a big enough challenge, if Ohio State wins they could be going up against Wisconsin, who is the best team in the country. No matter what happens, get ready for an entertaining weekend of hockey in Minneapolis.
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