Playing big

In a game where heroics seemed to come from several directions, one longtime contributor and one rookie stepped into the spotlight, much to the delight of Tiger fans. While Jarrett Lee and Charles Scott were leading LSU's comeback bid on offense, juniors Chris Hawkins and Rahim Alem gave the Tiger Nation a glimpse of the future on the opposite side of the ball.

The duo accounted for three of the defense’s biggest plays, with Hawkins nabbing two interceptions and Alem registering a monster sack in the game’s late stages.

 

Hawkins, a junior from Walker, La., has made his presence known in LSU’s depleted secondary.

 

After a career of backing up Jonathan Zenon, Hawkins has started 2008 with 13 tackles, which matches his total for 2007 and gives him the second-most stops on the team. His five tackles and two interceptions of Auburn quarterback Chris Todd came at crucial times in the new unit’s first true test of the season.

 

“It did feel different,” said Hawkins, who leads the team with his two interceptions. “You feed off the fans. They’re excited and booing and it makes you excited and makes you want to play hard. It wasn’t hard to make the plays. We just had to show the world that we can play together, that we’re functional, and that we’re a great defense.”

 

Some of the faces are a little new, but the situation certainly wasn’t on Saturday night. For the fifth time since the start of the 2007 season, LSU went into halftime trailing, this time 14-3. But Hawkins said it was business as usual.

 

“It’s just like it’s always been around here,” he said. “The leaders that have stepped up now let everyone know that we’ve been here before. Ricky [Jean-Francois] was really the most verbal and he told us we were about to show them that our fourth quarter program was a lot better. [Curtis Taylor] told the defensive backs ‘They really haven’t gotten much on offense. Most of it’s been on mistakes.’ He said we were going to stop making mistakes and go out there and play ball.”

 

With Auburn now behind them, Hawkins said the defensive backs have some work to do to get ready for Mississippi State.

 

“Right now, it’s just getting back to our basic defense,” he said. “Mississippi State has more of an I-backfield, and we were in a lot of nickel and dime [against Auburn]. It’s the SEC so anything can happen, but we’re getting back to the basics. We’re going to be seeing more running and two receiver sets instead of three, four, and five.”

 

As any fan will tell you, one game does not make a season. And with nine more left on the schedule, Hawkins is not content with what has been an impressive performance so far.

 

“There are a lot of mistakes,” he said with a smile. “Most of it is simple stuff because of me being young. Sometimes I come off my man when the quarterback is scrambling. Nothing major, but there’s a lot of stuff I need to work on. The two interceptions weren’t anything fantastic because the D-linemen were getting such good pressure. That was a lot of team play and a little bit of my athletic ability.”

 

Speaking of pressure, it’s a testament to the Tigers’ pass rush that the D-line’s biggest play of the night came from a non-starter.

 

Alem, a junior defensive end, rebounded from a devastating roughing the passer call on Auburn’s last drive with a resounding 15-yard sack on the very next play. The blow crushed Auburn’s hopes, and thrust Alem into the spotlight usually reserved for his younger brother, Chad Jones.

 

“We’re trained to forget about the previous play,” Alem said. “If it had been a good play I wouldn’t have taken the next one off, so if it’s a bad play I can’t let that change my morale for the next play. To be honest with you, I really did not realize that it was the play right before until after the game when people were telling me ‘Good way to come back.’ There’s just too much other stuff you’ve got to think about.”

 

Much like Hawkins, Alem enters the season in a much more prominent role following the loss of Glenn Dorsey. Alem notched eight tackles and two sacks during the championship season, and contributed two tackles, with a sack and a quarterback hurry Saturday night.

 

“That was our opportunity to prove ourselves,” he said. “People were wondering if we deserved all those accolades, and all we needed was an opportunity to prove it against a worthy opponent.”

 

Despite not holding a starting job on the defensive line, Alem said the sack, and the game in general, was one of the highlights of his LSU career.

 

“I took a lot of pride in that,” he said. “Up until last year I didn’t have a big role on the team. I’d come in on a few passing situations, and I played some big time games, but not until this year did it feel like the team was relying on me to do something.”

 

Someone commented that perhaps the play meant that Alem had stopped being Chad Jones’ older brother, and instead Jones was now Rahim Alem’s younger brother.

 

“Me and Chad’s relationship goes deeper than that, man,” Alem said.

 

But even as he said it, he grinned from ear to ear.


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