Getting reps at free safety during this training camp? That’s nothing to Mike Hilton. The Pittsburgh Steelers’ slot cornerback the past two seasons, Hilton was highly recruited to SEC colleges as a running back.
“I got (to Ole Miss) and kinda realized in looking at the other college backs,” the 5-foot-9 Hilton recalled this week from Saint Vincent, “that running back wasn’t going to be in my future.”
So it was only days into his freshman training camp that Hilton — all 175 pounds of him at the time — was moved to defense. By Week 2, he was getting playing time. A month later, he was starting in the SEC.
“He got into the game,” said former Mississippi teammate Donte Moncrief, now a receiver with the Steelers, “and he just started making big plays. Everybody was all like, ‘Crap, who was this little guy?’ ”
Hilton had two sacks of eventual Heisman winner Johnny Manziel and a forced fumble in his first start, Oct. 6, 2012.
“And he just continued to make plays after that,” Moncrief said. “And I knew, by the time he was a sophomore, I was like, ‘He will play at the next level. I know it.’ ”
The only question was finding a team willing to take a chance on Hilton — and it deciding where to play him. The answers, respectively, were “the Steelers” and “nickel cornerback.”
But despite Hilton’s size (no returning player from last season has a lower official listed weight; only slot receiver Ryan Switzer is shorter), the ol’ running back still lives inside Hilton.
“At running back, you are used to getting hit,” Hilton said, “so you get used to that physical feeling. And me being a gritty guy, when I switched to defense, I just knew tackling was going to be one of my strengths — and it’s working well for me.”
Well enough the Steelers aren’t afraid to experiment with deploying Hilton elsewhere.
Defensive coordinator Keith Butler is an ardent believer his safeties must be good tacklers, unafraid of contact.
So that the Steelers have put Hilton at free safety during practice is a compliment to what they think about it.
Though Hilton is more of an emergency option at safety — a spot the Steelers are thin at, and one where starter Sean Davis has missed the past few practices because of a finger injury — it’s not one at which Hilton feels out of place.
“Oh, he can play it,” starting strong safety Terrell Edmunds said. “He’s a hard worker who puts everything on the line for his team. A guy who’s willing and able to do anything. He can play multiple positions.”
Hilton sure can. Over his four-year college career, he started games at five secondary positions. During September of last season, too, Hilton took practice reps at safety when Davis was nursing an injury.
Still, don’t expect that to be where Hilton ends up, barring multiple injuries at free safety, if for no other reason than Hilton is too valuable and entrenched as the nickel.
“He’s one of the best slot corners in the game,” Moncrief said.
It’s true that No. 2 nickel back Cameron Sutton has had a strong training camp, which should come as a relief to the Steelers because he is the only realistic option in the slot if Hilton is unavailable.
Hilton almost intentionally made himself unavailable during this camp by not signing his exclusive-rights free agent tender until late in the summer.
As a two-year starter, Hilton and his representation, Drew Rosenhaus, let it be known they believed Hilton was worth more than the $645,000 the collective bargaining agreement all but locks an undrafted third-year guy into playing for in 2019.
If Hilton continues to prove his worth via versatility, physicality, coverage skills and intangibles, that will change this time next year. As a restricted free agent, if Hilton has a strong year he would potentially have more bargaining leverage in 2020 — and he’d also be eligible for a more lucrative long-term contract extension from the Steelers.
Not that he will admit that’s a course of motivation.
“I just go in every day with a chip on my shoulder,” Hilton said. “It’s a job. You don’t produce and they will find somebody else. So I have to focus on what I can do to get better and help this defense win games.
“It’s Year 3 for me. I had better have a better feel for the defense and feel more comfortable and have more confidence. That’s what will guide me.”