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A tale of two DB’s: Senquez Golson and Mike Hilton

The path to playing in the NFL is by no means an easy one. Whether you are a top draft pick, or an undrafted free agent off the streets, each and every athlete must prove they belong and earn their spot.  If injuries, poor performance, or simply bad luck strikes any individual, there is always someone else in the wings ready to seize their own opportunity.

This is the story of two defensive backs from Ole Miss.

Senquez Golson runs back an intercepted pass against LSU
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The first of these two DB’s (lets call him Player A) was destined for a bright future in the NFL. Despite being undersized at his position, Player A was recognized as a unanimous All-American cornerback during his senior season. This was certainly well deserved, as he went on to tie a Ole Miss football record with an impressive 10 interceptions that season! After running a 4.46 second 40-yard dash at the NFL combine, his draft stock was on the rise. Surely enough, Player A was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the second round (56th overall) of the 2015 NFL Draft.

It was no surprise that the Pittsburgh Steelers drafted a defensive back so early. Most football experts have considered the Steelers’ secondary as the biggest weakness of the team. Some might even argue that the poor play in the Steelers’ secondary has prevented the team from advancing past a quarterback like Tom Brady in order for them to return to the Super Bowl.

Golson participates in Steelers offseason practice after being drafted.
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With the addition of Player A, along with 2016 first round pick cornerback Artie Burns, one would think the Steelers had found their “guys” to turn things around on defense. While Artie Burns appears to be a future cornerstone, Player A has unfortunately fallen short of expectations.

That “Player A” is Senquez Golson, and he has yet to play a single down in the NFL. To make matters even worse, he probably never will either.

Things just couldn’t seem to get going for Golson’s NFL career. To start off his rookie training camp, he underwent shoulder surgery to repair a prior injury and was placed on season ending injured reserved soon after. 2016 didn’t fair much better as Golson suffered a Lisfranc foot injury during his second training camp. Surgery was once again required, ending another season that never even started. With two strikes down and one to go, 2017 was Golson’s last shot. The Steelers had been patient enough with their top draft pick and needed to see results if Golson were to remain on the team.

Can you guess what happened next?

Yep, Golson suffered an injury on the FIRST day of padded practice and never saw the field again. On September 2, 2017, the Steelers officially released Golson during their final round of roster cuts. Today, Golson remains a free agent despite his young age and college pedigree. The injury red flags have no doubt scared other NFL teams from giving him another chance, and you can’t really blame them. This story doesn’t end on a sour note, however, as when one door closes, another one opens…

In comes Player B.

Hilton celebrates a play with a teammate wearing the No. 38 jersey
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Player B was a teammate of Senquez Golson and started along side him in the Ole Miss secondary. Even though Player B did not flash the same athleticism or playmaking statistics as Golson, he played with a lot of heart, toughness, and determination. His teammates and coaches recognized this devotion to the game and awarded him with the annual Chucky Mullins award in 2015. For those that don’t know, this award honors Chucky Mullins, a high character former Ole Miss football player who was paralyzed and later passed away due to an injury suffered during a football game. By earning this award and wearing Chucky Mullins’ No. 38 jersey, Player B held the highest honor a Ole Miss football player could receive.

Unfortunately, Player B did not receive the same attention coming out of college as Senquez Golson. Despite graduating a year later, Player B still stood in the shadow of the All-American Golson. Without a NFL combine invite or any team interviews, Player B ended up as an undrafted free agent as he entered his NFL career. From this point on, Player B would have to fight for his chance to prove himself to somehow make an NFL roster.

Hilton runs at the Ole Miss pro day to impress NFL scouts.
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Player B, better known as Mike Hilton, would do exactly that.

The first team to call for Hilton’s services was the Jacksonville Jaguars, and Hilton jumped at his chance. He practiced hard all through out training camp and the preseason, but just missed the final roster cuts before the season started. Hilton was no stranger to rejection, however, and continued his fight to make it in the NFL. A couple of weeks later, the New England Patriots came calling and signed Hilton to their practice squad. A second chance with a perennial Super Bowl contender was almost too good to be true. When Hilton was cut a week later, this turned out to be the case.

Weeks suddenly flew by and no NFL job was in sight. There is a rumor that Hilton applied for a job at Foot Locker and was about to take a job there, when suddenly another NFL team called. It was early December, and as it turns out, the Pittsburgh Steelers were interested in a practice squad DB. Hilton would remain on their practice squad, impressing teammates and coaches along the way. The Steelers liked him enough to bring him back for the 2017 offseason, and Hilton never looked back.

Hilton covers WR Eli Rodgers during Steelers training camp.
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Through out the training camp and preseason, Hilton stood out, making plays consistently and holding his own against star wide receiver Antonio Brown. Most importantly, Hilton STAYED HEALTHY, giving the Steelers enough reason to keep him around. As the final roster cuts came, one Ole Miss DB was sent home, and the other had finally earned his spot on a NFL roster.

Mike Hilton has already made his mark on the Steelers. During last weeks’ win over the division rival Baltimore Ravens; Hilton recorded his first NFL sack and interception. When the Steelers drafted Senquez Golson in the second round of the 2015 NFL draft, that type of production was exactly what they had envisioned. Who would have thought it would be Golson’s teammate Hilton to fill that role instead?

Hilton clinches the game against the Ravens with his first NFL pick.
Image from Evan Habeeb – USA TODAY Sports

Looking back, did the Steelers have a bust of a draft pick or an incredible free agent find? Maybe both? It doesn’t matter now, as the Steelers have finally found their franchise cornerback from Ole Miss. He was just wearing a different jersey, and a special one at that.

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