HOOVER, Ala. -- Mike Hilton just didn't seem big enough.
The former two-star, two-way prospect from Tyrone, Georgia, had offers from the likes of Mississippi State, North Carolina and Virginia Tech, but when new management took over at Ole Miss in late 2011, Hilton's 5-foot-9, 173-pound frame became a sticking point for new coach Hugh Freeze.
"I almost screwed that up," Freeze said of his initial recruiting efforts with Hilton. "I almost passed that up because of his size."
Former Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt originally recruited Hilton out of the Peach State. Freeze made the 330-mile trek from Oxford to Tyrone to see if Hilton really was worth one of Freeze's precious first scholarship offers.
Viewing Hilton live changed everything.
"Thankfully, I went to see him practice," Freeze said. “There were a lot of Division I football players on that field he was on, and he was the alpha dog.”
Fast-forward to 2015, and that alpha dog has taken over the Rebels' secondary. Bulking up to nearly 190 pounds, Hilton has started at all five of Ole Miss' secondary positions -- both corner spots, both safety spots and the hybrid linebacker/safety Huskie.
A film junkie who carries a charismatic smile into every room he glides into, Hilton heads into his final year with the Rebels as one of the league's most experienced and versatile defensive backs. Ole Miss' recent Chucky Mullins Award winner has 29 starts in 36 games and has registered 136 tackles with 13 for loss, two sacks, three forced fumbles, four interceptions and 15 passes defended.
What makes Hilton so special in the Rebels' secondary is that he zips that compact frame all around the field. His instincts are uncanny, and his knowledge of the game makes him an incredibly potent threat to offenses.
“He’s a ball hawk," tight end Evan Engram said. "You put him anywhere on the field, he’s going to find his way to the ball. He’s that big playmaker -- he’s that spark on defense. … You put him anywhere on the field and he’s going to make plays for us.”
After playing most of the 2014 season at boundary corner, Hilton has moved to Cody Prewitt's old Rover safety position, which will allow him to roam around the back part of the defense and still rush into the box. That's what Hilton likes so much about his new home -- he can truly use his heat-seeking missile approach in just about everything he does. Instead of concentrating on one player or one part of a zone, Hilton will have more freedom and space in which to operate within the defense.
Worried that his wealth of positional knowledge could overload his thoughts while on the field? Don't be. Hilton, who has carried the same playbook for the last three-plus years, said filling his brain with so many calls, formations and patterns has only helped him adjust to his new position.
“It’s really just playing one position, but knowing all the other positions," Hilton said, flashing a confident smile. "It all goes hand in hand.”
He makes it sound so easy.
“I guess that my strength is my football IQ," he added.
Even though a broken thumb shortened his spring, Hilton, who enjoyed his most productive season in 2014 with three interceptions in 13 starts, seems comfortable at Rover. He impressed this spring and is wowing guys at offseason 7-on-7s.
Linebacker C.J. Johnson recalls Hilton flying down into the box on a trap coverage for Engram over the middle of the field during a recent workout. Hilton's instincts took him straight to Engram, everything around him a blur, before he came up just short of sending the 6-foot-3, 227-pound tight end flailing to the ground.
“If we had pads on, he probably would have hurt him. He probably would have hurt Evan," Johnson said with a nervous laugh.
“Oh yeah, if we had pads on there would have been a couple of collisions between me and Evan,” Hilton said.
Rover seems to be the perfect fit. Hilton is already a downhill runner who has incredible vision and can get in and out of his breaks when the ball is in the air. He's already solid in coverage and his awareness makes the field around him smaller.
Small, just how Hilton likes it. And just how people will continue to see him.
Freeze later apologized to Hilton about his recruitment, but Hilton brushed it off, thanking Freeze for just giving him a chance. That's how he views his size; it's a chance to showcase himself because he's always going to be a target.
And Hilton loves that.
“I’ve dealt with it my whole life," he said. "I expect to be thrown at and ran at because of my size, but I just go out there and do what I have to do -- make plays when I have to. I look at it as an opportunity. Some teams see you out there and you’re not the biggest guy around so they want to test how tough you are.
"I feel like I’m pretty tough.”