For USC’s Chris Hawkins, the 2015 season represents a new beginning of sorts.
After an up-and-down 2014 campaign in which he started the first four games at cornerback, only to be replaced in the lineup by Adoree’ Jackson, the third-year sophomore now finds himself back atop the Trojans depth chart -- this time at his new position, strong safety.
“It’s something that I’ve been working for since midway through last year,” Hawkins said. “After Adoree’ got my spot I came back with a different mindset that I’m going to outwork anyone and everyone, and I feel like I did that. I feel like I earned it, and now it’s just up to me to keep it.”
Initially catching the coaching staff's attention at safety last December during Holiday Bowl workouts, when he briefly lined up at the position simply because the Trojans were short on bodies there, he made more of a full-time switch in the spring, making a faster-than-expected transition -- something that can be attributed, in large part, to his high football IQ.
“It was just about me being able to take in everything,” said Hawkins, who compiled 32 tackles and one interception last season. “You know, how to do certain coverages, to really read offenses … it was an easier transition than I thought it was going to be. I did have some growing pains in the beginning, but I’m past those.”
Looking completely at home at safety now, Hawkins had a strong fall camp at USC, emerging not only as a more-than-capable performer, but also as one of the vocal leaders of the defensive backs group.
“That’s what the coaches told me I’m back there for,” Hawkins said. “I’m back there to be the QB of the defense on the back end, basically. I’m back there to make sure that everybody knows what they’re doing, to get everybody lined up, and once I get everybody lined up doing what they have to do, then I focus on what I have to do.”
As a former cornerback, Hawkins’ cover skills predictably translated well over to safety. What has been somewhat of a revelation, however, are the strides that he’s made as a tackler since he made the move. Having bulked up from 180 pounds to the 190-193-pound range that he sits at now, he’s been one of surest one-on-one tacklers in practice over the course of the last month.
“At the beginning of last year it was atrocious,” Hawkins said of his tackling skills, “and then I came in this summer telling myself that I would not miss a tackle, and all of fall camp up until now I’ve only missed one tackle. It was something that I really worked on.”
Part of a USC safety corps that, with the addition of a pair of freshmen in Marvell Tell III and Ykili Ross, is marked by improved depth, Hawkins and the rest of the unit are hoping to help bring a more consistent level of play to the secondary than was seen a year ago. In addition to Hawkins and junior Leon McQuay III, who is listed atop the depth chart at free safety, sophomore John Plattenburg, Tell and third-year sophomore Matt Lopes all figure to rotate in at times, with Ross -- currently sidelined by a shoulder injury -- also possibly in the mix down the line.
“We’re very deep back there right now,” Hawkins said. “I feel like, as the season goes on, and as the younger guys continue to develop, we’re going to be very solid.”
With USC’s season-opening clash with Arkansas State in the Coliseum now just one day away, it won’t be long before everybody gets a first-hand look at the group.
As for Hawkins, who has a new lease on life at a new position, he simply can’t wait.
“Words really can’t explain how excited I am,” Hawkins said. “I’m just thinking about the game 24/7. I wish I could fast-forward time so it could start. I’m ready to go.”