Hilliard's long road to playing in Detroit

ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Corey Hilliard started the first preseason game of the 2009 season for Indianapolis, his goal in his third season in the league to be one of the players who would be responsible for protecting Peyton Manning for the Indianapolis Colts.

First play of his first preseason game that year against Minnesota, Manning was sacked. It was Hilliard’s fault. Later that drive, he allowed Manning to be pressured. He was called for a holding penalty that was later declined.

All on one drive.

“It was the worst drive of my life, that opening drive,” Hilliard said. “That’s when I knew, [stuff’s] for real, you know what I mean?”

He learned even harder the following week, when Indianapolis released him. This story is important now because of what came next, of how that moment helped bring him to now, where he has filled in at right tackle for the man who beat him out for the job this preseason with the Detroit Lions, Jason Fox.

After his release in Indianapolis, Hilliard landed on Cleveland’s practice squad. The Lions signed him late in the 2009 season off the Browns’ squad and he’s remained in Detroit since.

Hilliard’s story returned to relevance for Detroit last Saturday, when he addressed the offense at the team hotel in Cleveland to tell his story.

He did, speaking for around five minutes and explaining to the rest of the offense what it was like to be cut, to having to tell his family, to not knowing if he would play football again after one hellacious drive in a preseason game.

“It gave me chills,” wide receiver Kris Durham said. “He just got really personal with his story and told us when he realized different things about his life and different things about the game of football and how much it meant to him.

“He gave us a lot of insight into how he thinks and how he is. It was very emotional and very passionate.”

The emotions became more real earlier this season. He was in a close battle with Fox, another veteran, to win the starting right tackle job with the Lions. He lost the battle and prepared himself for another season of sitting on the bench, playing mostly special teams.

He figured by losing the job, Fox would play and start all 16 games. Then, in the first week of the season, coincidentally against Minnesota, Fox injured his groin. Hilliard, who wasn’t planning on playing, had to take over.

“It was weird, you know. Mixed emotions. It was surreal,” Hilliard said. “Just because being in a position battle and then you don’t win the battle, your mind is set on, well, I’m not going to play this year. Then Fox got hurt and I felt so bad for him because he had worked so hard and won the job and finally got his shot to play.

“So I had to go into the game and felt bad for him, but had to erase all that and play the game. It was just a lot of [stuff] going on in my mind and then you’re out there playing and it wasn’t what I expected after losing a job.”

Hilliard’s been in almost every play since. He started the next two games for Detroit as Fox recovered from his groin injury. Then Fox got healthy and was reinserted into the starting lineup.

Hilliard figured he was headed back to the bench for the rest of the season. That lasted less than a game. Fox injured his knee and Hilliard went through all the same emotions in the opener again. Felt bad for his teammate. Had to focus on actually replacing him.

He’s played every snap since. In games he has started, Detroit is 3-1 and has done a good job protecting Matthew Stafford. Save Manning, Stafford has been sacked at a smaller percentage (3.6 percent of drop-backs) than any other quarterback in the league.

He’s also been helping rookie right guard Larry Warford, one of the top first-year guards in the NFL, adjust to professional football. The two have worked on their communication, even though Warford said when Hilliard came into the game against Minnesota when Fox was injured, he didn’t realize it for a series or two.

It is a communication they work on in practice, identifying pass protections specifically, so it’ll be implemented in games.

“You have to understand the concept of the play to get in that situation,” Warford said. “It’s not a whole lot of varieties. It’s not a whole lot of things that we have to communicate, but when we know the situation and the play, he knows how to set to help me out and I know how to set to help him out.”

Hilliard paid attention to those small things more after what happened in Indianapolis, after he was told his services would no longer be needed. As Saturday night proved, when he told the story -- his story -- to his teammates, it ended up working out.

“It takes a lot to be an NFL tackle and he’s got it,” center Dominic Raiola said. “That’s pretty impressive, what he’s done and his story and whatever. For him, he’s playing good right now.

“He’s got my respect and my confidence and he’s our guy at right tackle.”