When Anthony Hawkins came to Colorado State to play football, wide receiver was his focus.
After all, the three-star recruit totaled more than 1,000 yards and 13 touchdowns during his senior season while earning first-team All-District honors in the football-rich state of Texas. Hawkins played in every game his freshman season, but struggled to contribute given the talented bunch of receivers ahead of him.
His freshman season ended and the Rams began preparations for their 2017 season. Approaching spring practice, one thing was certain for CSU football. The Rams had one of the most talented receiving groups in the Mountain West. Michael Gallup, Olabisi Johnson and Detrich Clark returned from 2016 while transfer Preston Williams and freshmen EJ Scott and Warren Jackson added promise to the future of the position.
On the other side of the ball, the Rams’ secondary was quite the opposite. Senior defensive backs Tyree Simmons and Jordon Vaden graduated, and some of those returning had yet to solidify themselves. So the opportunity existed for someone to prove their talents at the position.
Hawkins was faced with a tough decision: continue to wait for an opportunity to open on offense or switch positions and make an immediate impact on defense. For Hawkins, the ability to get on the field was far more important than playing his natural position. Beginning in the spring, Hawkins began the transition from wide receiver to cornerback.
“It was a suggestion to get on the field,” Hawkins said. “I just wanted to do whatever I could to help this team out. Just being a team player, trying to be active, trying to become more involved. I was not upset with the movement.”
Prior to the switch, Hawkins was not a stranger to the position. In high school, he got his feet wet playing the nickel position on passing downs. But he was far from an every-down defender, and the intricacies of the position were still foreign to him.
As a receiver, Hawkins ran forward. He was the one who made the cornerback backpedal and decide when to break off the route. Now a cornerback, it’s the complete opposite. Hawkins learned the unnatural skill of running backwards. As opposed to running at the cornerback, he is now the one backpedaling until the receiver makes a move.
As with any new skill, Hawkins had his ups and downs leading up to the season. But he adjusted to the role reversal well enough to prove himself to the coaching staff.
“Only having six practices in the spring, there were moments where you thought this guy had a chance to be pretty good,” head coach Mike Bobo said. “Obviously at times it was new for him, just some mistakes on how to play leverage, and man, and zone. But the six spring practices and this whole fall camp, you see a guy that becomes more and more comfortable in trusting the coverage, trusting his assignment and playing in that coverage.”
Fellow cornerback Kevin Nutt matched that sentiment, noticing Hawkins’ comfort level increasing in the months leading up to the 2017 season.
“You can definitely tell he’s getting more comfortable at the position,” Nutt said. “He’s way more fluid at playing corner than he was in the spring. In the spring his hips were kind of tight, he wasn’t used to playing backwards. You can just tell he’s grown a lot since then.”
Since the end of 2016, Hawkins has gone from a player struggling to find his role on offense to one of the team’s starting cornerbacks at the beginning of the season.
The transition didn’t happen overnight. Hawkins put aside any pride attached to playing wide receiver and turned his attention to contributing in the most feasible way possible. That starts with coaching and being a coachable player.
“He did a really, really good job of taking coaching to become one of our best corners,” quarterback Nick Stevens said. “You definitely notice him out there, he’s coming down and making plays. Being on the other side of the ball, (Anthony) can kind of be in that receiver’s mind.”
One of the biggest advantages Hawkins had at his disposal throughout the transition was learning form a former first-round draft pick. CSU’s cornerbacks coach Terry Fair was drafted No. 20 overall in the 1998 NFL Draft by the Detroit Lions and went on to earn NFL All-Rookie honors in his first season. The University of Tennessee standout went on to play six seasons in the NFL and joined CSU’s coaching staff in 2015.
Hawkins relishes the opportunity to learn from someone as knowledgeable as Fair. Every game, every practice and every film study, Hawkins continues to be a student of the game.
“Having a first-round draft pick as a coach, it helps a lot,” Hawkins said. “Everything he says, I know he knows what he’s talking about because he’s been in that position. I actually got to watch his pro day, so I’m taking some of his drills, his techniques, his twists and running with (them).”
Though Hawkins is now an every-down defender, that does not stop him from using his skills learned as a receiver. In fact, it’s those very skills that Hawkins believes gives him an advantage over opposing receivers.
“It’s tendencies that I see, that I would see in myself,” Hawkins said. “Receivers have a tendency to raise up when they’re getting ready to break. Receivers always take a hard step one way when they’re going the opposite. It’s little tendencies like that.”
It’s not just an intellectual advantage that Hawkins possesses from playing receiver. Quickness and physicality are two necessary skills to excel at cornerback, and his experience as a route runner and blocker make the adaptation that much easier.
“The thing about Anthony, he’s always had the quick twitch, the short area quickness, and he’s physical,” Bobo said. “He was one of our most physical players last year offensively, he was one of the better blockers, really good short area quickness, and that has translated well to the defensive side of the ball. He’s shown a knack to make plays on the ball, and the comfort level will come with more repetition.”
Collegian sports editor Colin Barnard can be reached by email at email@example.com or on Twitter @ColinBarnard_.