Darius Hillary Contributing for the XFL's St. Louis Battlehawks
Since his time at UW, cornerback Darius Hillary has bounced around from the practice squads of the NFL's Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns, Oakland (now Las Vegas) Raiders, and New Orleans Saints. In August 2018, he was signed by the Washington Redskins only to be waived seven days later. According to NFL.com's stats, the former Wisconsin corner played in one NFL game with the Browns in 2017.
With his love of the game still prominent and wanting to continue playing, however, Hillary now suits up for the St. Louis Battlehawks of the XFL.
"To me honestly, I feel like I have a lot left in the tank to give to the game of football, so I definitely want to keep playing and make it back to that next level," Hillary told AllBadgers.com on Wednesday.
Hillary played in 54 games during his Wisconsin career -- which at the time tied him for the program record -- and eventually started the final 40 at his cornerback spot. In his final year at UW during the 2015 season, the defense ranked second in the nation in pass efficiency rating allowed (96.75) on way to allowing just 13.7 points per contest, which led the FBS. He also claimed an all-conference honorable mention selection by the coaches.
After those various stops in the NFL, and also one with the AAF's Arizona Hotshots last spring, St. Louis announced on Nov. 22 that it had selected the defensive back in the league's supplemental draft.
“It feels great getting that opportunity to play the game that you love," Hillary said. "I know (for) a lot of guys in this league, this is a chance for them to get back out there and get some more film and potentially make it back to the NFL. Playing in this league definitely is a blessing because without it, who knows when the next opportunity might have come.”
In the season-opening win against the Dallas Renegades two weeks ago, Hillary led the team in tackles (nine -- eight solo, one assisted). The Battlehawks' defense smothered its opponents to just 267 total yards and 1-of-10 on third down conversions.
Last weekend, Hillary recorded three tackles, a quarterback hurry and a pass defended in a 28-24 loss to the Houston Roughnecks.
The defensive unit is led by coordinator Jay Hayes, which for Badger fans, that name may sound familiar. Hayes worked as an assistant coach at UW from 1995-98, and his son, Jesse, was a teammate of Hillary's and played outside linebacker for Wisconsin from 2011-15.
Hillary works at both at the cornerback and nickel spots within the unit.
"Wherever the coach feels that I can be an asset to the defense, that's where he puts me," Hillary said. "He allows myself as well as the other guys on the defense to make plays and on certain positions. He gives us the call, gives us the game plan every week and feels comfortable enough to let us go out and make plays."
As noted last week when AllBadgers.com spoke with former UW linebacker Garret Dooley, the XFL has innovated new rules in particular areas. Among them include new kickoff alignments, no extra point tries that include kicking (but rather the offense trying one-, two- or three-point tries from various distances near the goal line), a modified replay system and how the coaches and players communicate with each other.
The play clock for the league currently sits at 25 seconds, compared to the NFL allowing 40 seconds between snaps once the previous play concludes. From Hillary's perspective, outside of the special teams changes for kickoffs and punts, not much has changed for him, though he conceded there is some adjustment to the speed of the game.
“With the play clock, it definitely is a little bit quicker so it's a lot more fast paced," Hillary said. "You've got 25 seconds in between each play so you’ve got to line up and get ready. After a play is over, then that play doesn’t matter. The play that matters is that next play.”
Two other Badgers currently play for XFL franchises: Dooley with the New York Guardians and former wide receiver/safety Tanner McEvoy with the Tampa Bay Vipers. He had an opportunity to chat with the former, and he regards the latter as a close, personal friend of his.
For that matter, Hillary and Dooley's franchises clash during St. Louis' home-opener on Sunday (2 p.m. CT, ESPN).
"I'm sure I'll get a chance to talk to him," Hillary said about Dooley. "When we first come out there, it's all business, but after the game, I'm sure I’ll talk to him and see how he’s doing.”
Hillary also keeps in touch with a group of former teammates at Wisconsin regardless of if they are in professional football or other careers. When he has a chance to, he still turns on games to catch his old collegiate program.
“'Badger Saturdays,' as I like to call them," Hillary said. "I had a chance to talk a little bit with (wide receiver) A.J. Taylor and (safety) Eric Burrell. Some of those guys, just kind of fill them in and see where their head is at, and if anything that they need from me, I can give to them and impart that wisdom. Just in terms of game or if they just need some somebody to talk to. I've had a chance to talk to a few players, but that's pretty much been it.”
As the new league gains steam and the teams progress into the season's third week of play, Hillary's goals in the short-term revolve around improving every day with his teammates. That also includes securing that win against Dooley's Guardians.
"Long term, it's been my goal to make it back to the NFL, and I want to do anything I can with this team to make sure that we're successful and get everybody back to the level that they want to be at," Hillary said.
“We just got to come out every day. Work hard, take coaching, learn from those mistakes that you might have made and just grow from it each and every day. Learn something new, just get 1% better each and every day. Stack those days up, continue to be consistent in everything that we do here.”
Update, Feb. 22: St. Louis and New York play on Sunday, not Saturday. We have correctly updated and clarified the date in the article.