Brad Hawkins didn’t anticipate becoming the only returning starter within Michigan football’s secondary.
He was supposed to play alongside senior cornerback Ambry Thomas after both roamed the defensive backfield last year in their first season as starters. But Thomas declared for the NFL draft in August shortly after the Big Ten postponed all fall sports. That left Hawkins as the sole veteran of a position group that doesn’t have much experience anymore.
“Becoming a leader on this defense, it means a lot to me,” Hawkins said Friday during in a Zoom call. “I know I’m going to play a big role in the secondary and the defense period, just being a senior and being a leader and playing a lot and knowing what’s going on.”
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While teammates like Thomas and offensive lineman Jalen Mayfield declared for the draft following the delay of college football, Hawkins says he hasn’t given the NFL much thought. And he’s unsure what he would do if Michigan doesn’t play until next fall.
“Honestly, I don’t know,” Hawkins said. “I want to come back, I want to play another year here at the university. Of course, there’s a lot of things that can change. But I want to come back and play with these guys, and hopefully I get that opportunity.”
If he does play another season in Ann Arbor, expectations will be even higher than before.
In addition to Thomas’ departure, the Wolverines graduated cornerback Lavert Hill and safety Josh Metellus after the 2019 season. That leaves Hawkins as the sole returning starter of what was once a deep and experienced unit.
There were others, cornerback Vincent Gray and safety Dax Hill, who saw plenty of playing time last fall. But Gray and Hill have appeared in 29 career games – with just four career starts between them. Hawkins, meanwhile, has been a contributor since 2017, appearing in 37 career games with 10 starts (all in 2019).
After rotating as the team’s third safety in 2018, Hawkins emerged as one of the team’s most dependable players last fall, making 53 tackles and one pass breakup. After the season, he was named Michigan’s Most Improved Player on defense, while Pro Football Focus placed Hawkins on their first-team All-Big Ten Team as a “flex” player.
That designation is part of what made Hawkins such an important player for the Wolverines’ defense in 2019, as his versatility and skillset are a perfect fit for defensive coordinator Don Brown’s scheme.
“He can cover slots, he’s tough enough to get in the run game, he can play the deep middle third, he can do a lot of things for us and has really learned the position,” Brown said in August 2019. “He’s a guy we’ve just kinda kept there at one position and let him hone his skills both technically, fundamentally and schematically. We’ve got a good player there; very confident in his abilities.”
Hawkins says he spent the offseason working to improve his speed and keeping track of his lean body mass. The tutelage of first-year safeties coach Bob Shoop has helped, too.
“He knows a lot of football,” Hawkins said. “He’s been around the game a long time. He’s helped me elevate my game. He’s been around a lot of great safeties. I’m happy to be with him, I’m happy to be around him and I’m happy to learn from him.”
But Hawkins isn’t only focusing on his own development. As the most seasoned member of the secondary, he’s taken notice of others around him. At cornerback, Hawkins says Gemon Green, D.J. Turner and Jalen Perry have caught his eye as players who have “definitely stepped it up and are looking good right now.” And he also had high praise for Hill, who will likely start alongside Hawkins when Michigan returns to the field.
“He’s grown as a player,” Hawkins said. “He got a lot bigger, a lot stronger, a lot smarter. He’s definitely a guy to watch out for, of course. Seeing what he did the previous year, he had a good year. He stepped up in a lot of big games for us.
“Both of us do a real good job of communicating with each other. I feel like we both cover really …