For a cornerback, confidence is critical. Deion Sanders’ speed and playmaking ability would’ve meant nothing had it not been for his insatiable swagger. The feeling you’re better than the receiver you’re tasked with facing, even if sometimes, you aren’t. It’s a position left out on an island, unique to any other in the game. And every corner, even guys like Primetime, take their lumps.
Confidence is key for Steelers’ corner Mike Hilton. At 5’8, 178 pounds, he’s easy to dismiss, easy for teams to try and pick on. Certainly doesn’t profile like an NFL cornerback. But look past his size, watch his game, and the confidence he carries alongside him, and he’ll be a tough cut in Latrobe.
It’s a trait he’s inherited from his parents, he tells me in an interview last week.
“It really comes from my parents,” Hilton says. “They’re confident people. They’ve always been in my ear. Go out, have fun, be confident. God gave you an ability for a reason. I always cherish what they say.”
Hilton has embraced challenges his entire football career. A Fayetteville Georgia native, he chose to attend Ole Miss despite offers from six other schools. Part of the allure was to stay close to home. But another factor was the chance to play in the SEC, college football’s toughest test.
Calling him a defensive back may seem vague but it fits Hilton’s career arc. The only thing he didn’t do in the secondary was coach. During his four years there, he played both corner spots, safety, and their Huskie position, the 5th DB in their 4-2-5 defense.
“At first, it was a tough adjustment,” he says of being shuttled around. “Just constantly being around and playing with certain guys. Learning the system over four years, it slowly starts to become easy. I would put myself in situations where I would get mental reps. I would put myself at corner, put myself at safety, if I’m not actually getting the physical reps. I feel like that’s prepared me for the NFL. Of course, you need to be versatile, you need to do multiple things to help a team out. And I feel like I can do that with the Steelers.”
His size meant offenses went after him. But Hilton was confident in his game, never backing down from a challenge. Always around the ball, he recorded 70 tackles in both his junior and senior seasons. Interception numbers weren’t gaudy but he rounded that off with four career forced fumbles to go with six picks.
It still wasn’t enough to get drafted, teams were quick to knock him for his size, and Hilton signed as a undrafted free agent with Jacksonville in 2016.
In comedy, a hellroom is playing a gig in a packed sports bar where all TVs are muted mid-game. And somehow, the comedian has to win over the crowd. The life of an undrafted free agent is similar. Most can’t hack it. There’s a constant sense of dread, dealing with the pressure of turning in your playbook at a moment’s notice.
Hilton says having that confidence tunes out the noise.
“If you go out and make a couple plays, it catches teammates’ eyes, it catches coaches’ eyes. You can’t go out there trying to survive. You have to go out there confident. Be able to play with confidence and be ready when your time comes.”
But that attitude doesn’t always insulate. By the end of camp, the Jaguars cut him outright, serving as a wakeup call to the league’s harsh reality.
“Of course, a lot of guys are used to being on teams, being the star, being able to go out and play whenever. Being cut for the first time really opened my eyes. It showed I had to be prepared mentally and physically.”
A week with the New England Patriots in September seemed like the rest of NFL experience he’d get in his rookie year. Until the Steelers came calling in December. Following a workout with Denver, Hilton flew out to Pittsburgh after their victory against the Buffalo Bills. Carnell Lake wasn’t in attendance but Kevin Colbert, the decision-maker, showed up to watch him tryout.
Thinking he was just getting on their radar for after the season, the Steelers surprised and signed him that week. It gave Hilton a jump start to this season, becoming comfortable with the team and absorbing the playbook.
As far as sleepers go, Hilton has been the talk of the spring. Rave reviews came from media watching and his teammates, not too dissimilar to Eli Rogers’ story as a rookie. Two years ago, it was Terence Garvin who walked away from OTAs thinking, who is this guy?
Ramon Foster had the same thought. He wound up asking Colbert who that #40 was – Hilton – making play after play.
Hearing that, Hilton couldn’t help but chuckle, crediting good coaching and confidence in his ability for a successful start to the year.
Working behind William Gay in the slot, Hilton jumps in with the 1’s whenever Gay gets the day off. Size pushed him to the slot but Hilton plays like a man a full foot taller. Embracing the details, he’s a hard hitter who supports the run.
You don’t have to project that, either. Just look at his college tape. Against Memphis, he dropped 6’7, 244 pound Paxton Lynch like a house of cards.
“It’s just my mentality. I always go out and expect teams to come after me. Because 90% of the time, I’m the smallest guy on the field. They won’t think I’m physical and come up and tackle. It’s my mentality. Be physical, you’ll set the tone for yourself and the defense.”
There’s a never-back-down quality he possesses. A fearless attitude to rally downhill or match up against any receiver, even someone like Antonio Brown. Rogers is the usual player Hilton drawsin the slot, two former UDFAs pushing each other every single rep.
Not that Hilton needed the advice but he has traits Carnell Lake constantly presses the secondary to embrace.
“The physicality part. Like I said, we know we can defend passes and intercept. But what are we going to do when a 6’7, 250 pound tight end comes our way? We gotta be physical, be able to tackle.”
Running and hitting lends itself to special teams, an area Hilton knows is vital for his path onto the roster. Unlike some hotshot prospects, he played special teams throughout his career, tamping down the learning curve.
As has been the story of the offseason, he agreed he’s witnessed the defense run more man coverage from last year to present day, pairing an improved pass rush with a more aggressive secondary.
Camp is a different stage. Hilton has opened eyes but it’s all come in shorts and shells, a far cry from true football. He says he knows he must take his game to another level when pads come on, starting with the third day of camp. The outcome is anyone’s guess.
Whatever happens, you can bet he’ll be confident.