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Harty: Family connection may help Hawkeyes land one of nation’s top linebackers

[ 0 ] May 23, 2014 |

Under normal circumstances, the Iowa football team probably wouldn’t have made Justin Hilliard’s top five schools, along with Ohio State, Michigan, Alabama and Notre Dame.

Justin Hilliard

Justin Hilliard

That’s why Hawkeye fans should thank Hilliard’s older brother, C.J. Hilliard, for being a positive influence.

C.J. Hilliard is an incoming freshman running back for Iowa. He also had his choice of colleges before picking Iowa, but nothing like his brother does now as he nears the end of his junior year at St. Xavier High School in Cincinnati, Ohio.

C.J. Hilliard picked Iowa over offers from Indiana, Boston College and several Mid-American Conference schools, whereas Justin Hilliard’s list of suitors is a Who’s Who of college powerhouses as evidenced by the five schools that he announced were his finalists on Twitter Friday morning.

Justin Hilliard is considered one of the premier linebackers in the 2015 senior class. The 6-foot-2, 225-pounder is ranked as the best inside linebacker nationally by Rivals.com and the fourth best outside linebacker by Scout.com.

Nothing against Iowa. But it would be the answer to the question about which one of Justin Hilliard’s five finalists doesn’t belong on this list of college football powerhouses.

The list: Iowa’s 2014 football recruiting class

Highlight reel: Get a look at 2014 Hawkeye football recruits

But that’s hardly a criticism. The other four schools on the list are about as prestigious as they come.

C.J. Hilliard has done his part by opening the door for the Iowa coaches to land his younger brother. It’s now up to Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz and his assistants to close the deal. They’ve already had nearly 18 months to build a relationship with Justin Hilliard because that’s approximately how long C.J. has been associated with Iowa.

Indiana or Boston College also might have made Justin’s final five if C.J. were set to enroll at either of those schools. So it already has taken some work by the Iowa coaches to reach this point.

Justin Hilliard initially said he would like to make a decision before he starts his senior year, but now he’s saying he probably needs more time because of the enormity of the event.

Although, there would be a risk involved, I think Iowa could benefit by Justin Hilliard delaying his decision in order to let some of the 2014 season unfold.

Iowa, which is coming off an 8-5 season, has gained steam by doubling its win total from the 2012 season. But will that be enough to offset what the other four schools have to offer in terms of prestige and the chance to win big on a grand stage?

Michigan hasn’t been Michigan for a while now, but it’s still Michigan, with its famous winged helmets and more victories than any other college football program.

Notre Dame has lived more on its tradition recently than its success, but the Fighting Irish also are just two seasons removed from playing for the national title.

Alabama and Ohio State need no explanation for why they made the cut. Alabama is a current dynasty under coach Nick Saban, while Ohio State is always flirting with being a dynasty, along with being Justin Hilliard’s home-state school. Having Urban Meyer as its head coach also could help the Buckeyes, considering his reputation for winning.

Ferentz also has a reputation for winning, albeit to a lesser degree. Ferentz has earned praised as the Iowa coach for getting more out of less. Landing Justin Hilliard would be a break from that tradition.

Iowa’s best chance to land Justin would be for C.J. Hilliard to have a smooth and enjoyable transition to college life and for the 2014 Hawkeye squad to have major success. By major, I mean winning no fewer than nine games.

Ferentz’s crew does an outstanding job of developing players for the NFL, but so do the other four programs on Justin Hilliard’s list. The Iowa coaches are certainly wise to promote Ferentz’s NFL pipeline, but it probably won’t be the difference maker.

Justin Hilliard has to believe that he could achieve the same level of success, or close to it, both individually and as a team, at Iowa as he could the other four schools.

It’s rare for the Hawkeyes to make it this far with a recruit of Justin Hilliard’s stature, especially since he lives out of state and in a state where the mighty Buckeyes reign supreme at home.

It just shows that a big brother can be a powerful influence. It also help that Iowa is a respectable program with its share of tradition.

But it won’t be the past that convinces Justin Hilliard to be a Hawkeye should he ultimately make that choice, but rather the present.

Justin Hilliard prep highlights

C.J. Hilliard prep highlights

Category: Big Ten, Hawkeye news, Iowa Hawkeyes Football

About Pat Harty: Columnist Pat Harty has been covering the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Press-Citizen since 1991. Originally from Des Moines, he currently writes columns and covers Hawkeye men's basketball for Hawk Central. View author profile.

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