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Cedric Hilliard: Leading by example

Joe Hettler | Friday, November 14, 2003

There’s something missing in Notre Dame’s defensive huddle when Cedric Hilliard isn’t playing.

“Ced’s presence when he’s not in the huddle is very much felt,” Notre Dame defensive tackle Darrell Campbell said. “Because there’s this big gap that’s normally filled and it’s just a little bit smaller when somebody else is in there.”

After Saturday, the 6-foot-2 295-pound nose tackle Hilliard will never be back in that Irish defensive huddle at Notre Dame Stadium. And it won’t be his big body that the Irish miss the most – it’ll be his leadership and the way he plays the game.

“He’s a tremendous football player,” Irish defensive line coach Greg Mattison said. “The thing that separates Cedric from a lot of other guys is that he has tremendous pride and he’s very intelligent.”

An unlikely choice

Hilliard almost didn’t make it to South Bend when he was looking at schools in high school. Growing up in Arlington, Texas, Hilliard admits Notre Dame wasn’t a team he rooted for as a kid.

“Notre Dame wasn’t a school I always wanted to go to. Living in Arlington, I was a Texas Longhorns fan,” Hilliard said. “[During my] junior year of high school Notre Dame started recruiting me with a lot of other schools, like Texas and Texas A&M.”

But Hilliard knew Notre Dame was the place for him after his official visit in December of his senior year. He had gone to South Bend in the summer before his senior year and talked to Bob Davie’s coaching staff and really liked the campus. In the winter, he and many other future Irish players visited and, before he left, Hilliard decided he would be wearing blue and gold for the next few years.

“In the end I thought Notre Dame was the best fit for me. I thought it was the place for me and I cancelled all my other visits to go to Notre Dame,” Hilliard said.

After Davie was fired, Hilliard didn’t have a tough time adjusting to Willingham and his staff, manly because Mattison, his defsensive line coach, was retained by Willingham.

“It wasn’t too difficult because Mattison stayed on the staff, so that made it a lot easier on me,” Hilliard said. “It’s just something you have to do. You just have tom adjust to coaching changes.”

And even though Notre Dame hasn’t had quite the success that Hilliard hoped for when he arrived as a freshman, he is still pleased with his decision to attend Notre Dame.

“I have good memories,” Hilliard said. “There are always things you wish you were able to accomplish that you didn’t necessarily accomplish. But it’s been an overall good experience. I’ve learned a lot since I’ve been here and I’ve grown into a man.”

Playing through pain

He might not admit it, but Hilliard has probably played hurt, banged up or injured more than any other player on Notre Dame’s teams since 1999. But for Hilliard, that’s just part of the game.

“My mentality is that it’s football and you’re always going to be hurt in some fashion or manner and a lot of people on the team are hurting every day when they go out there, so it’s part of the game and you just have to get used to it,” Hilliard said. “You have to figure out a way to play with certain injuries. Look around the country and if you ask anybody if they’re completely healthy when they play ball, I don’t think you’ll find too many people that will say yes to that.”

Notre Dame coach Tyrone Willingham doesn’t agree with Hilliard. Willingham said the nose tackle has been a leader by playing through his injuries throughout his career and has had an exceptional 2003 despite being beaten up.

“I think when you consider the injuries that Cedric has toted this year he’s had one heck of a year,” Willingham said. “To battle and provide the leadership for this football team that he has, I’m excited and impressed and very pleased with what he’s given us.”

While Hilliard said it is difficult for him to see how playing through injuries has affected his teammates, Mattison agreed with Willingham and said Hilliard’s toughness is one of his best attributes.

“Just the fact that he’s played in these games, tells you everything about him,” Mattison said.

Hilliard has been starting in the trenches of the Irish defensive line since the middle of his junior year, when he took over for an injured Andy Wisne before the Boston College game in 2001. He finished that season by starting the last five games, after playing in the first six, and ended the season with 27 tackles and two sacks. He also forced a fumble.

In 2002, Hilliard started in 10 games and had very similar numbers to his junior year. He had 31 tackles, 19 for a loss, forced a fumble and had two more sacks.

Despite the success he had during his first two years of playing regularly for the Irish defense, Hilliard’s most vivid memory of his college football career was against Navy during his sophomore season.

Hilliard saw his first defensive action against the Midshipmen and recorded a tackle for a loss during the game. But Hilliard recalls his tackle of Navy’s quarterback as the highlight of his first game action.

“The highlight for me was my sophomore year playing Navy in Orlando,” Hilliard said. “There was a throwback pass to the quarterback and it was like I was the only person on the field that actually saw it, so I had to run the quarterback down and make the tackle. That was exciting for me because I was just a young guy trying to get my feet wet and it was so much fun.”

This season, Hilliard has started in five games this and played in two more, despite nagging injuries. He has 24 tackles a forced fumble and his first career fumble recovery against Washington State.

Being the man

Hilliard’s work ethic and talents have made him one of the key elements in Notre Dame’s defensive play during the last few seasons. He has not only brought outstanding skills, but also a knack for being a leader to his teammates.

“First of all, he’s a good player. Anytime he’s out there, he makes us better,” Notre Dame defensive coordinator Kent Baer said. “People look at him as kind of a warrior and he puts pressure on everybody [because he plays hurt] and football is a game where you play hurt.”

Mattison said that when Hilliard and Campbell play together on the defensive line, they are instrumental in making the defense a notch better.

“You’ve got Darrell and Ced, who came in here together and are like brothers, and you can just feel the chemistry and feel the lift when they’re in the huddle together,” Mattison said. “They’re very important to the team and that’s what it’s important to get Ced in the game [when’s healthy],”

After battling along side Hilliard for several seasons, Campbell holds his teammate in high respect for the way he plays the game.

“He gives so much to the team,” Campbell said. “Ced’s the kind of leader that goes out there and plays very physical. He’s the example. He’s the one you want to follow. He makes you want to run on the field full sprint and off the field full sprint. He plays the game the way it’s supposed to be played.”

While Hilliard is disappointed his final season at Notre Dame didn’t produce more wins, he said he will always remember playing with his teammates through all the ups and downs of the season.

“The biggest memories I’ll have are of my teammates and how they played through all this and still kept everything on a positive note,” Hilliard said. “That’s a good memory to have. The friends you make on this team are going to be your friends for life.”