E.J. Hilliard should be a name that anyone within the IFL community should be very familiar with. After a rematch with the Iowa Barnstormers where the Steamwheelers enacted revenge on the outcome of the first game, E.J. Hillard was selected as our focus player of the week.
E.J. Hilliard started his journey at a high school many of you have probably heard of. Hailing from Miami Fl, Hilliard attended the famed Miami Northwestern high school, a powerhouse in Florida high school football. E.J. would only start his senior year, sitting behind a guy you’ve probably heard of before in Teddy Bridgewater. E.J. would lead Northwestern to an 8-2 record on the season, earning a scholarship offer to Florida International University in Miami. Unrelated note, his number-one wide receiver his senior season; the 2014 4th overall pick: Amari Cooper.
E.J. enrolled early at Florida International to get a head start on football and went into the season as the backup to starter and future friend Jake Medlock. Hilliard appears in four games during his freshman season, 3 after Jake Medlock goes down with an injury.
In his 4 appearances during his freshman year, he would throw for 645 yards, 4 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions. He would add another 44 yards on the ground and a touchdown. In one of these games, against number 19 Louisville, he would go 9 of 10 for 82 yards and a touchdown in relief of Medlock.
His sophomore season would be more of the same, he would play in 10 games, and start in 4, as Medlock, unfortunately, was plagued with injuries for much of his college career. Over the course of the season, he would throw for 775 yards and three touchdowns. 2014 looked to be his season, his friend Jake Medlock had transferred to Valdosta State to finish his senior season. This looked like it would be his position for the next two years.
However, FIU had just brought in a new recruit into the fold, someone spring football people will be very familiar with, Alex McGough. In his junior year, Hilliard would see time in 6 games, throwing for 336 yards and a touchdown. However, McGough won the starting job. At this point, Hilliard follows Medlock’s footsteps and transfers to play his senior season at Division 2 Valdosta State.
For those of you unfamiliar with Valdosta State, they are a powerhouse in Division 2 college football, having won multiple national championships. In his only season as a starter, he would put together a great season, throwing for 2425 yards, 22 touchdowns, and only 5 interceptions. He also demonstrated his dual-threat ability running for over 300 yards and 3 touchdowns.
After going undrafted in the 2015 NFL draft, E.J. drops off the map entirely. He filled in some gaps in his interview (more on that later). The next record I could find of E.J. is as the starting quarterback in the IFL. In his first year as the Steamwheelers quarterback, he would throw 2174 passing yards, rush for 415 and score 58 touchdowns. This would be good enough to win him the IFL offensive player of the year.
Unfortunately, he was not able to follow that up in 2020, and I think we all know why. Covid-19 forced the IFL to shut its doors for the 2020 season. In 2021, Quad City would opt to not compete, waiting till 2022 to take the field again.
E.J.’s second full season in the IFL was truly special. He would repeat as the IFL offensive player of the year, throwing for 1810 yards, rushing for 718, and scoring a gaudy 70 touchdown. This season would be more than that, he would lead the Steamwheelers all the way to the United Bowl to face the Northern Arizona Wranglers. It was not meant to be as they would lose a heartbreaker 47-45.
In 2023, E.J. would continue more of the same. As of the writing of this article, Hilliard’s season is complete after losing to the Frisco Fighters in the first round of the playoffs. He finished his 2023 campaign with 2334 passing yards, 678 yards rushing, and 77 total touchdowns.
Interview with E.J Hilliard
E.J. Hilliard was gracious enough to sit down and answer a few questions for me about football, life, and his journey so far.
I will include a preview of that interview in the following paragraphs, but for the full audio version, you can go here.
Jesse: In your time in the IFL, you have accomplished a lot in a really short amount of time, what do you attribute that to?
E.J: Efficiency. When I played at Miami Northwestern, I sat behind Teddy Bridgewater for 3 years. I got to play here and there when Teddy went down, but I only had one year as the starter to earn my college scholarship.
When I took a scholarship, they had a quarterback named Jake Medlock, one of my best friends to this day. He was a redshirt sophomore and only one game ahead of me. He goes down and I get thrust into the action against Louisville. Because of that I didn’t get to redshirt and got thrown into the action.
Then my junior year, Alex McGough, who is killing it in the USFL right now, comes in after Jake left, we split time, and Alex is named the starter. I transferred to Valdosta State, and one of the quarterbacks on the team, Roland Rivers, and I split time before I earned the starting job later. So it kind of became the same situation as high school.
After that, I went to Germany for a year, where I finally got to spend a whole season as a starter. After that, I went to Quad City, first in the CIF, and then the IFL, and that was the first time I actually had time to become acclimated to being a starter. In my career, I learned to do things efficiently and hit the ground running because I had limited windows to accomplish what I was after.
Jesse: Last year, Quad City went on a playoff run and made it all the way to the Championship game. Has this season felt different as a result of this?
EJ: Yeah, for sure, especially after making the championship game last year coming out of the east. There’s the attitude of if you want to be the best you have to beat the best. You see the same thing right now with Northern Arizona.
After making it that far, and other teams reading about players winning awards, every team wants to put their best foot forward when they play you. So it definitely feels like there is a target on our backs.
This year we weren’t the ones gunning for it; we are the ones everyone’s trying to knock out. It’s just been one of those seasons where you can’t take anyone lightly because everyone is looking to have their best game against the best teams.