CLEMSON — When Corico Hawkins arrived on campus two years ago, his defensive knowledge was, shall we say, limited.
“I didn’t know anything my first August camp,” Hawkins, Clemson’s junior starting middle linebacker, said. “All I did was run to the football.”
Hawkins has progressed nicely since then. The 5-foot-11, 230-pounder has started 14 straight games for Clemson, including all 13 in 2010, and will be the Tigers’ starting middle linebacker for Saturday’s season opener against Troy.
He has crossed the bridge from green freshman to seasoned veteran, which can provide a fascinating perspective on what the Tigers’ highly-touted freshman linebackers are going through these days.
Saturday, five-star recruits Stephone Anthony and Tony Steward should both receive their first playing time in a Clemson uniform, both as backups. In the latest depth chart, released Tuesday, Anthony is listed as a third-team middle linebacker behind Hawkins and Steward is listed as a second-team “Will” linebacker behind Jonathan Willard.
Defensive coordinator Kevin Steele, the Tigers’ linebackers coach, has been loath to speak specifically about his freshmen, other than to note that they’re meeting the expectations set for them during the recruiting process.
Still, it’s clear that they’ve had to overcome a significant learning curve to contribute immediately.
Since arriving at Clemson, Steele has approached true freshmen very carefully. In 2009, Hawkins played 119 snaps – and 40 of those came in the Music City Bowl against Kentucky, his first career start.
He played 14 snaps over the first five games, and didn’t see the field against Georgia Tech or TCU.
Last fall, Justin Parker, a four-star prospect, played only 57 snaps spread over nine games.
Picking up Steele’s system can be difficult at times, and it isn’t always a linear process.
In late August, a frustrated Steele said at times, his new linebackers could learn something and apply it for four days, “and on the fifth day, it’s like you take an eraser and wipe it across their brain,” he said.
The grind of practice, he said, is a major factor.
“Fatigue will make you forget,” he said. “My legs hurt. My stomach hurts. You have to fight through it.”
That isn’t always an easy proposition, Hawkins said.
“I can only speak to when I was a freshman,” he qualified, “but when I first came in, I was in the meetings, I was fresh, I was excited about being there. When I started going through camp, putting the pads on, doing drills, I was like, ‘Oh my God, I’ve never experienced something like this before in my life.
“To have all that on your back, the pressure of being a freshman and trying to cope…”
That includes the pressure of living up to the recruiting hype and fulfilling expectations, Hawkins said.
“There are so many freshmen around the nation that play as freshmen, so you want to be considered one of those guys,” he said. “And you want to make everyone proud. There’s a lot on you as a freshman, as well as going out in 90-degree heat, hitting guys 200 pounds… the game is fast. There’s a lot on freshmen – they don’t know how to mentally grasp stuff yet. Once they do that, they’ll be fine.”
Two years later, Hawkins says he feels “more comfortable.” Now, he’s a key cog in Steele’s defense, the guy doing the teaching instead of the guy learning and swimming in information.
“I know the system inside and out,” he said. “ I’m a leader around here, guys are feeding off me, I’m feeding off them. There are a lot of great things going on that I wasn’t doing when I was here when I first got here.”
Once Anthony and Steward start feeling the same way, they, too, can fulfill the massive hype.
“When first got here, I was making sure I got every call right, getting in my gap,” Hawkins said. “Now it’s all fun, and you can go out like you were in high school. Not second-guessing yourself. Playing hard.”