The Maneater

Reflecting on up-and-down career at Missouri, Cam Hilton embraces leadership as secondary’s lone senior

“I feel way more ready to play than any other year,” the free safety said at training camp of his upcoming senior season.

Senior safety Cam Hilton kneels while stretching before a Missouri training camp practice at the Mizzou Athletics Training Center on August 16, 2018.

Cam Hilton’s two longest trips across a football field should come with an asterisk denoting their entirely distinct contexts.

The second trek lacked all the momentous swagger — and literal length — of the first, a complete diagonal from pylon to pylon. One hundred yards-plus, the stat sheet might as well have read of the four-star recruit’s elusive interception return for a game-tying touchdown in his high school district championship.

“My friends say that was my ‘scholarship game,’” he says five years later.

The second didn’t take quite so much evasion or speed. Ejected for helmet-to-helmet targeting in the third quarter of Missouri’s 2017 season opener against Missouri State, Hilton made the long walk back to the locker room. It was the culmination of a frustrating mental stretch for the then-junior defensive back.

“From camp to season, it was just not there,” he said. “I was just going through it and just everything was going south. I just wasn’t ready to be a leader, I wasn’t doing things right. I was walking around here not talking to anybody.”

But as he was interviewed at a cafeteria table after Friday morning’s practice at 2018 football training camp, Missouri’s prospective starting free safety got plenty of talk from teammates. Fellow rising senior Terry Beckner, Jr. jokingly rubbed his hair while walking past, and still others stopped on their way by to mimic him.

So what makes this year’s camp different for Hilton?

Well, that targeting penalty for starters. Hilton remembers he “didn’t even touch the field” the next week against South Carolina. Miscues such as that one and other lapses in coverage early in the season led to increased sideline time for him, while then-freshman Jordan Ulmer and Kansas State transfer Kaleb Prewett overtook him as starting safeties.

For someone who had grown used to starting the previous season, even after multiple switches between offense and defense, it also led to a period of self-reflection.

“Toward the middle of last year, I started to figure it out,” Hilton said. “And then when this year came around, I kind of put it all together and finally got back on track, just doing me and how it was supposed to be the whole time.”

Reflecting on his time at Missouri — on the times he’s sensed growth and on those he hasn’t — is important to Hilton. And as the 2018 season came around, doing so took on a new meaning under a unique mantle. Hilton is the only senior in the Missouri secondary.

“It’s a lot of weight,” he said. “This is my first year taking that role as a leader. I’ve always been trying to be a leader, but this year it was kind of forced upon me, and I took it and just ran with it.”

Run with it he has, becoming a forerunner not just among his fellow defensive backs, he says, but to the entire team. His credibility even amid the offense is reinforced most notably by his close-knit friendship with quarterback Drew Lock that dates back to their freshman year as roommates.

“A brother for a long time, a brother for years to come,” Hilton calls the quarterback. “We talk on the field about how do you see things, how do I see things, just to help each other out to be the best players we could be.”

But Hilton insists they don’t overindulge just yet, since they have to go up against each other in training camp. He claims the two of them even have a tradition.

“Every year, day one, I pick Drew off,” Hilton said, “then he stops throwing it my way.”

This year though, Lock has continued challenging the free safety and throwing into his coverage areas. Hilton has counted three interceptions.

He predicts he’ll finish the preseason with just one more, though.

“[Lock’s] a smart quarterback,” he said, laughing.

Hilton will also see defensive play-calling under a new coordinator, his former secondary coach Ryan Walters.

“Me and [Walters] have come a long way,” Hilton said. “He’s been with me since the beginning. He’s developed me into the person and player I am now. He’s big on technique. My technique’s pretty good, but when I get tired, he tries to tell me to focus. When I get tired, I get a little sloppy, but I’m working on that.”

If being lulled into complacency was Hilton’s problem in the past, he trusts it won’t be anymore under the continuing guidance of a promoted Walters. And in turn, Walters and head coach Barry Odom seem to trust the experienced Hilton with a solidified starting position at free safety on the depth chart.

“The best is gonna be out there,” Ulmer said. “[Hilton] has gotten more vocal. We really push each other to be the best we can be.”

For a senior who’s been from safety to wide receiver and back, winning and losing starting roles along the way, that job security was a long time coming.

“Everything’s different,” Hilton said. “I think having my spot already secured, it allows you to focus. You know exactly where you’re supposed to be. I feel way more ready to play than any other year.”

Edited by Adam Cole | acole@themaneater.com

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