Before Clemson departed for Nashville to play Kentucky in last year's Music City Bowl, then starting middle linebacker Brandon Maye went down with an injury during practice.
Hawkins was pressed into duty as the starter at the MIKE position.
"All of a sudden he got hurt in practice. Everything relied on me, for the calls," he said after Monday's bowl practice. "I had to take on that, which I wasn't expecting."
Sure enough, he took the opportunity and ran with it, recording seven tackles in 40 snaps during Clemson's Music City Bowl win.
"I played pretty well. We got the w—that's the most important thing," he said.
Hawkins has yet to let go of the starting MIKE spot.
He's played 692 snaps this season, third-most by any member of the Tigers' defense. Through 12 games, Hawkins has 61 tackles, nine tackles for loss and three sacks.
"For the most part, I think experience is the important thing," he said.
Now, he's using building upon experience as Clemson prepares for the Meineke Car Care Bowl against South Florida.
"They've got great players, just like any team we've played this year. They're well coached, they're fast, big, physical guys," Hawkins said. "We've got to bring our a-game, just like we have each and every game this year."
He knows the Tigers will need their a-game when Bulls quarterback B.J. Daniels is under center.
"He wears number seven for a reason," Hawkins said, alluding to Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick. "No. 7 speaks a lot, if you're wearing it at quarterback."
Daniels has thrown for 1,496 yards and nine touchdowns this season. He's also rushed for 237 yards and four scores.
"He's up there with the most skilled quarterbacks we see in our conference," Hawkins said.
But the redshirt sophomore quarterback has also thrown 12 interceptions this season.
And Daniels was injured against Miami, South Florida's second-to-last game of the season. His replacement, freshman walk-on Bobby Eveld, steered the Bulls to a win over the Hurricanes.
With Eveld as the starter a week later, it took some last-second heroics from Connecticut for the Big East champions to walk away with a win in the regular season finale.
South Florida head coach Skip Holtz hasn't named a starter for the bowl game.
"They've got great players. They're well coached. They're going to do whatever it takes to get the w," Hawkins said.
Expect the unexpected
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