Blue Collar Attitude Working For Walk-on

Auburn, Ala.--When spring training began, Kevin Hobbs was so far down the cornerback depth chart that he was a cab ride away from first team status.

However, the self-described "underdog" has developed into one of the most interesting stories among SEC football players this year as he has steadily moved up the depth chart from a virtual unknown walk-on to a starting role for the Auburn Tigers.

Hobbs has both of Auburn's interceptions this season, including one last Saturday vs. Western Kentucky in his first collegiate start. AU coaches haven't announced if he will be in the starting lineup this Saturday night when Tennessee comes to Jordan-Hare Stadium, but he will play whether it is in a starting role or a reserve role backing up Junior Rosegreen, who could start at either cornerback or strong safety.

So far the 2003 season has been quite a run for a player who opened spring training as the seventh best cornerback on the team, according to his position coach, Phillip Lolley. "Right now Kevin is the starting cornerback," says Lolley. "He has really progressed further along than we thought he would."

An interception by Hobbs led to a touchdown for the Tigers vs. Western Kentucky.

Hobbs, a six-foot, 179-pound sophomore walk-on, has several things going for him, but none of the factors is more significant than his work ethic. "I think there is always a factor to a player being hungry," Lolley notes. "I think it is like anything else. I don't think it is limited only to football. If you are going to be successful at something, I believe you have to have a hunger for it and you have got to want to succeed. I think with him being a walk-on he came in here with more to prove. When he got his reps he wanted to make use of his reps and he wanted to play football."

Although it is not certain that Hobbs will be in the starting lineup this Saturday night for a nationally televised SEC showdown vs. Tennessee, he will see action as part of the playing rotation in the secondary.

"This is a real big dream and accomplishment for me to play against a team like Tennessee," says Hobbs, who transferred to Auburn after spending one season at Texas Southern, a Division I-AA program with little history of success out of the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC).

Hobbs, who played his high school football four states east of Texas at Tampa, Fla., Technical High School, admits he settled for Texas Southern because it was the only full scholarship offer he received as a high school senior. "A lot of Division I-AA teams recruited me out of high school," he remembers. "I had maybe one or two Division I teams look at me out of high school my junior year. I was small in high school and I didn't go to a real big high school and we weren't really known for winning. When I went to Texas Southern, it was like my last choice."

His stay there was a short one. Hobbs and a group of teammates got into trouble for an incident he says involved being in "the wrong place at the wrong time." He wasn't dismissed from the team, but decided a fresh start would be best, even if he had to do it as a walk-on.

Hobbs sent letters and video tapes to colleges like Central Florida, Miami, North Carolina State and others. Auburn receivers coach Greg Knox, who recruits the Tampa area, remembered Hobbs after evaluating him as a high school junior and got back in touch after getting a tape from the cornerback. Central Florida showed interest, too, and admitted him to school, but Hobbs had grown up a fan of Auburn and Florida State football so the decision to try to walk-on at Auburn was an easy one even though the defensive back realized it was going to be a hard thing to do.

"I called Coach Knox and he told me that I would have to sit out a year and he told me about the situation where they had a lot of corners leaving and I would get a chance to play here and a chance to work for a scholarship," Hobbs remembers. "Coach Knox told me it was going to be difficult academically to get me accepted, but we will take you. The next couple of days after he called I got a letter from the school saying that I had been admitted academically."

Hobbs says that when Knox told him that he would get a shot to earn a scholarship at Auburn, he decided to transfer to AU and says he made the right decision academically and athletically. He notes that Junior Rosegreen, who he knew from his childhood days growing up in the Miami area before his family moved to Tampa, went out of his way to help make the transition easier for the walk-on. Hobbs says it wasn't easy showing up as a virtually unknown walk-on, but says, "I just thank God and the coaches for giving me this opportunity to play."

An accounting major, Hobbs is doing fine academically and says that the support of his parents has been crucial, especially when he got into trouble at Texas Southern. "I was kind of down because I didn't know at that point what I was going to do," says Hobbs, who notes that the worry even affected his grades. "My mom and dad kept telling me that everything was going to be okay, just keep praying about it. That is when I gave the call to Coach Knox and it was just an ‘over-joying' feeling all over again like I had been signed again out of high school. It was just a joyous moment for me and my family."

"It was really hard at first financially for me and my parents," Hobbs says. "That was the biggest part. My parents always told me from the beginning--don't worry about money, don't worry about anything, we are going to take care of you. We just want you to focus on school and focus on football. It was really hard at first to make new friends again and get to know people I could actually trust."

Hobbs is shown at practice last week prior to his first college start.

Hobbs says that Auburn lived up to its promise of giving him a real shot. "I was fortunate to be one of the ones that stood out in the spring. I just made plays on the field. I think the coaches gave me a really good shot, a really fair shot."

Defensive coordinator Gene Chizik says that Hobbs has made steady improvement since he arrived at Auburn. "I saw a guy who was really hungry," Chizik, says. "Some guys come in here and just expect to fall into the system and be good at it.

"It was a slow process for him, coming from where he came from. He came here and worked everyday. He stayed here this summer and worked all summer. I think the guys around him really respect the fact that he came in here from day one and was all about work, even when he wasn't third or fourth team he was still working the same way he is now. He has definitely earned where he is without question. He is a blue collar guy and everybody knows that is why where he is at."

Hobbs began attracting attention from colleges as a high school junior when he intercepted six passes, but he was undersized at five-foot-nine and 155 pounds and didn't get bigger his senior year. "I have put on more than 20 pounds since high school and I am about six feet, or six feet,one half inch tall," says Hobbs. "I am a late bloomer."

He says that growing up he was almost always smaller than the people he competed against and that forced him to try to outwork opponents, a trait he still has today. "In high school my coach looked at me like, ‘Do you really want to go out for the team?' I said, ‘Yes, coach. I am ready. I can do it.'

"My whole life I have been smaller and one of the undersized kids so I have always worked hard to get what I want. I have always worked hard whatever it was--lifting weights, running, doing the extra things. The extra things, that is what gets you by, not just going to practice and doing what the coaches tell you. You have to do extra work off the field."

A two-year starter in high school at cornerback, he played a little bit of wide receiver, but his main position was defense. However, as a senior he didn't get much action because teams attacked the other cornerback when it was time to pass the football and he didn't get a single interception his senior year.

The situation is just the opposite at Auburn with Carlos Rogers at the other corner being the player that opponents don't normally attack. "I know they are going to come at me," Hobbs says. "I know I am going to be ready because I think they are going to try to come at me early so I have have to be ready for whatever happens. I am not looking at it as a bad thing. I am looking at it as a good thing on my part because if they come at me that is more chance for me to make plays."

Lolley notes that Hobbs isn't the fastest or most talented cornerback on the team, but says the sophomore knows how to play the position. "Kevin has a knack for seeing the ball and projecting the quarterback's drop and what route the receiver is going to run just by how he comes off the football," the cornerbacks coach says. "He just has a knack for that. He knows when the receiver is going to try to stick him. Kevin sets his hips down real good and is able to come out of the breaks quicker."

Lolley adds that Hobbs has good instincts on when to break on the football and when to be conservative and make sure the receiver doesn't get behind him. "The ability to keep the home run ball away is important," the coach says. "If you make great plays breaking on the ball the offensive coordinator and the quarterback are going to try to long ball you. That is one we cannot get back so that is our big fear."

Hobbs says he likes starting, but he can handle it if Rosegreen is the pick of the coaches to play ahead of him at cornerback. "Whatever is best for the team is really what I am about. I am about the team winning and myself second. If moving Junior back to corner is the best thing for the team I just have to live with that. When I do get in I just have to step up to the plate and make plays."

His coaches are not the only ones who are surprised that Hobbs was able to break into the starting lineup this year. "I knew I was going to compete, but it is almost like a dream come true to play at this level," the walk-on says. "To make this big an impact after sitting out a year is a shock to me, too. It is an exciting feeling, but I know it is my hard work that made it possible. I am excited because of the attention, but I don't have a big head about it."

Tiger Ticket Extra:

*Hobbs didn't get to play cornerback in the opener, but he sure wanted a shot at covering Southern Cal star receiver Mike Williams. The two have competed against each other in football going back to their days as youngster in youth leagues.

*Hobbs says that he appreciates the fan support at Auburn after spending a season at Texas Southern. "The fans here just love Auburn football."

*The cornerback wears 49, which says causes him some grief from his teammates because it is not a number usually associated with cornerbacks. "No, I am not thrilled about it," he says with a grin. "As a walk-on, you just have to get what they give you. Everybody keeps picking on me about that number, but I will play with 99 if I can get on the field although I would like to have a lower number."

*Definitely the most unknown Tiger player to start a game in recent years, Hobbs says that he was thrilled to see people recognize him and call out his name at the Tiger Walk before the Western Kentucky game. "That was great," he says.

*Hobbs notes that the game is played at a faster level at Division I than in Division I-AA at the SWAC. "You have to really stay focused and play like the coaches tell you to play," he says.

*Lolley, his position coach, says that going on athletic ability alone, you wouldn't figure that Hobbs would be the starter. However, the walk-on knows what he is doing on the field. "You don't see receivers running by him in practice, even ones with much better speed," Lolley notes.

*Defensive coordinator Chizik says, "I have been very pleased with the way he has progressed right now since the beginning of the year. He really has. Look at our stats right now and he is the only who has gotten any interceptions so obviously that says something. Week to week he knows he has got to get better, but right now he has proven he can help us on Saturdays."

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