Every year in training camp there is that one player who emerges out of nowhere. The young player who wasn't a high draft pick, wasn't really on anyone's radar, but just keeps making plays.
They are labeled the 'Training Camp Phenom,' one of the more notable ones for the Steelers being Willie Parker, an undrafted rookie free agent back in 2004. But a lot of times, they are just that, a 'Camp Phenom' who vanishes before the regular season even starts.
During the 2017 training camp, the player who emerged and quickly became the 'Camp Phenom' was Mike Hilton.
Hilton came into the NFL as an undrafted rookie free agent with the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2016, but was released in the preseason. He spent a week on the New England Patriots practice squad, before they waived him. And then, he sat and just waited, and waited, and moments before accepting a job at Foot Locker, the Steelers called and signed him to their practice squad close to the end of the 2016 regular season.
"Growing up you are used to playing football, being on a team," said Hilton. "Being home just about that entire season, it takes a hit on your confidence. You have to believe in yourself and trust in God and when that time comes be ready."
When he arrived at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa., last July for camp, he was ready to make an impression. And he did just that. The thing about Hilton, though, is it didn't end there. He wasn't just a 'Camp Phenom.' He was the real deal.
Hilton finished the season fifth on the team in tackles with 54, added eight quarterback pressures, six passes defensed, two interceptions and a forced fumble. He accounted for four of the Steelers' franchise record 56 sacks, including three in a monster game against the Houston Texans.
"I feel like I did pretty well," said Hilton. "Coming in I was trying to make a name for myself. I was trying to show the guys I am willing to do whatever I can to help the team win. Starting in training camp I was getting noticed. Everything went up from there. I think I had a pretty successful season."
While many look at Hilton's success as one of the biggest surprises of the season, it was something he expected from himself.
"I had confidence in myself and what I was able to do," said Hilton. "It's not hard. You have to go out there and not do too much. Just be yourself. Do what got you in this position. Don't try and overdo it. Just be yourself. I had to go out there and prove it. You can't take an opportunity for granted. I was on the practice squad and wasn't on the team for most of the 2016 season. I just go out and try to prove myself. Not for anybody else, but for myself that I can play this game, I can help a team win and be a big impact player.
"I went out and made a lot of plays to help the team win. I have a lot to learn, though. Hopefully it's only going to get better from here."
That desire to improve has already started. Hilton is spending a portion of the offseason in Pittsburgh, and has already been working out on his own at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.
"I want to get stronger," said Hilton. "Maybe I can hold my leverage on some blocks against linemen. There is still some work to be done."
He isn't limiting the desire to improve to just the physical side of the game. Hilton is spending some of his free time studying film, both his own from the 2017 season, as well as others in the NFL.
"I am working on getting faster, stronger, especially in the mental game," said Hilton. "That is where I feel like I wasn't equal with the other guys in that aspect. I am studying film. Studying other guys that play the same position on other teams. Studying techniques and tips that they do that I can add to my game.
"I will be watching guys, guys like Tyrann Mathieu, especially guys that are the same stature as me that play my position."
Hilton said he is even more motivated after meeting with Coach Mike Tomlin at the end of the season and hearing his encouraging words.
"He said I have shown I can be a big impact player on defense," said Hilton. "He wants me to get better as time goes on. Going into the offseason you want to get better. He gave me tips and techniques to work on, things he saw me progress on throughout the season. I want to work on those things and come back better."