Steel Mill A.M.: CB Mike Hilton aims to keep impressing Steelers in preseason opener
Sure enough, a quick and undersized cornerback from Ole Miss is beginning to open up some eyes at Steelers training camp this summer.
But it's not necessarily the one you'd have thought.
With 2015 second-round pick Senquez Golson out because of injury — again — the Steelers have been exploring other options to fill out their regular-season roster at cornerback. Again.
And one of the cornerbacks whom you can't help but notice in Latrobe this summer has been 5-foot-9, 184-pound Mike Hilton.
Hilton has been consistently slotted as the second-team nickel cornerback throughout camp, and he's even gotten some looks to run with the first team. He's showed good ball skills in making interceptions and an abundance of pass break-ups. An affable competitor, Hilton has endeared himself to teammates and coaches, too.
“I feel like I am learning the scheme well, going out and making plays,” Hilton said. “And showing the coaches and my teammates that I can contribute — whether it is on special teams or defensively.”
Hilton was teammates with Golson at Ole Miss from 2012-14, the duo spending two seasons as roadtrip roommates and one as lining up as starters in the same secondary.
“We have a lot of memories together,” Golson said. “He's a good friend of mine; it's good having him here.
“I'm kind of getting tired of him, though.”
Golson laughed; he was kidding. But what wouldn't be as funny would be if Hilton played well enough that it made Golson expendable. And with Golson nursing a hamstring injury that's prevented him from practicing since the first padded session of camp July 30, the Steelers have no choice but to look other places.
After missing each of his first two NFL seasons because of injury (shoulder in 2015, foot last season), Golson was an outside cornerback with the second-team defense over the first 2 ½ practices of camp. He even said he felt like his old self.
But then he pulled up lame covering a mock punt during a special teams drill midway through what was the first padded practice of camp.
Hilton said that before Golson got hurt, the two were highly enjoying patrolling the same secondary together again. It felt like old times, although Hilton was an all-SEC outside cornerback while in college and now he was working exclusively in the slot.
That's the position the Steelers initially envisioned Golson could fill after his All-American 2014 season at Ole Miss. Even though Hilton went undrafted a year later and was cut loose after camp and practice-squad stints with the Jaguars and Patriots, respectively, the Steelers now are intrigued with the idea of Hilton developing into a good slot corner.
The Steelers signed Hilton to their practice squad late last season and re-upped him with a reserve/futures deal over the winter.
With Artie Burns, Ross Cockrell, William Gay, Coty Sensabaugh and rookie third-round pick Cameron Sutton yet above him on the depth chart, Hilton's work is far from finished. But he's making the most of his opportunities.
Plus, Hilton is wise enough to recognize that like anyone else in his position (undrafted, former practice-squader), defense isn't necessarily his immediate path to a roster spot anyway.
“Special teams is pretty much the No. 1 option; that's how you get your foot in the door, and it can only go up from there,” Hilton said.
“I'm just going to keep learning as much as I can, keep going out there and trying to make plays.”
Hilton's first chance to do so for the Steelers in a game setting comes Friday night in the preseason opener at the New York Giants.
Notes from camp
Quote of the day: “This guy is a veteran player, so I am not overly shocked by his competence at practice. He has been highly competent, but I will be interested and excited to see him in game action.” — coach Mike Tomlin on Sensabaugh, an offseason acquisition in free agency.
Stock Up: OL Chris Hubbard. Hubbard's transition from what formerly was an interior lineman to now a tackle appears to be complete and permanent. Hubbard has taken reps almost exclusively at second-team left tackle this camp (none at all at guard or center) and has repeatedly been chosen above Jerald Hawkins when a fill-in has been needed on the first team at either tackle.
Stock Down: RB Knile Davis. Another offseason free-agency signing, Davis has failed to step and assert himself among what otherwise is an inexperienced group at running back in the absence of Le'Veon Bell during this camp.
Schedule: Preseason game, at New York Giants, 7 p.m. Friday.