Outside linebacker A.J. Hawk was one of the pleasant surprises on Ohio State's defense last year. He wasn't a full-time starter, but saw a considerable amount of playing time behind Cie Grant and proved he was a player to watch.
This year, Hawk is brimming with confidence and says the experience he gained last year is a big reason why.
"I think the playing time I got last year gave me a jump on this season," Hawk said. "I'm pretty confident right now. Just getting some game experience was big for me. You can't duplicate the games, especially in Ohio Stadium. So, just getting in some games last year and getting to play with the other guys really makes me more comfortable this year."
Hawk had a few memorable games during his freshman campaign.
"I liked playing Penn State," he said. "And Wisconsin I came in and played the second half and it was great playing there. They have great fans and I like going into an environment like that and do well like we did."
Heading into the 2003 season, Hawk knows that some OSU fans have questions about the linebacking corps.
"I think us linebackers, that's a big question mark for people because losing Matt Wilhelm and Cie Grant, they are unbelievable players that are both in the NFL right now," he said. "So, I'm sure teams like Washington are going to try and come at us and run the ball right at us. We have a couple young linebackers in the game – we don't have much game experience – but we'll be up for that."
Hawk was asked to pinpoint the strength of OSU's defense.
"I think we have great senior leadership," he said. "And of course we have a great D-line. Those guys are unbelievable. The guys that play in front of me make my job a lot easier. But, I think our biggest thing is our senior leadership we have that helps us out. Especially us younger players. They let us know what's going on and they keep us on the ball. Will Allen, Will Smith, Darrion Scott, Tim Anderson, Rob Reynolds… all those seniors on defense really help us out."
Last year's defense was arguably the best unit in the country and Hawk is looking for more of the same this time around.
"Hopefully we can duplicate what we did last year as a defense," he said. "People look in from the outside and see that we lost some really good senior leaders, but, like I said, I think senior leadership is going to be the strength of the defense again. We have the talent, so there is no reason we can't be just as good or better than we were last year."
Hawk, a 6-foot-2, 240-pound sophomore, can't say enough about OSU's defensive line.
"The players I've got in front of me on the D-line, they help me out so much with what they can do," he said. "They are so disruptive and allow us to just run around and make plays. It's got to be one of the best defensive lines in the country. They don't have a weakness."
Hawk reiterated that he is feeling a lot more comfortable this season. He isn't thinking as much on the field, which allows him to play faster.
"Just getting so many reps with the ones this year helps me settle down," he said. "It makes the game seem slower. I don't have to think out there, I can just react. Even though I didn't play that much last year, just getting in those games and getting that experience really helped me out for this year. I know what to expect now going out there. I don't have to be in awe and all that. I've learned a lot from the upperclassmen."
The Centerville native knows that Washington's offense will present a tough test for the Buckeyes. The Huskies are known as a passing team, but Hawk is expecting them to try and establish their running game as well.
"They've got two Heisman candidates (QB Cody Pickett and WR Reggie Williams) and a great running back (Rich Alexis)," Hawk said. "Every team wants to try establish the run, but we'll be up for the challenge. I'm sure they'll want to run the ball. We'll have a great game plan, as will they, so I'm just excited to get out there and see what happens."
Hawk is glad that the Bucks are playing a nationally ranked team in the opener, instead of a cupcake. He likes the challenge of playing a "dangerous" team.
"But I don't really take it as a dangerous game," Hawk. "Any game we play – especially against the Big Ten or other big conferences – is dangerous because this isn't pee-wee. You can lose to any team if you're not playing your ‘A' game. So, yeah, of course it is dangerous, but that's how we like it. We want to play the best."
Hawk likes the challenge of going up against Pickett and Williams. He knows they are explosive, but even in his short career, he's already witnessed some Heisman campaigns come to an end in the Horseshoe.
"We're excited to go up against a couple players like that," Hawk said. "We played a lot of guys last year that were Heisman candidates and we played well against them and this year we're hoping to do the same."
Even though the Huskies are saying they want to establish their running game, not many people are buying it. The Buckeyes are expected to use a lot of nickel and dime formations.
"I think so," Hawk said. "We use our nickel packages a lot, especially against a team like Washington that likes to spread it out and throw the ball around. So, yeah, we'll probably use a nickel pretty often, but we'll also be in base defense a lot."
During camp, the Buckeye linebackers rotated to different positions quite bit. Hawk even saw some time at the Mike. Defensive coordinator Mark Dantonio wants them to be able to play any of the three spots, but Hawk considers himself strictly a Will.
"Only recently have I played a little bit of Mike and that's just because we're short on guys," he said. "But, I don't think I'll play much Mike – if at all – in games. But, who knows. It's all up to the coaches. I like the Will spot, but whatever they want to do is fine with me."
Fred Pagac and Mike D'Andrea are still battling for the MLB job. Hawk doesn't think the Bucks can go wrong with either one of them.
"Mike's a great player," he said. "Real strong. Freddie is of course a little older and has more game experience. But they are both competing hard for the job and if either one of them is in there, we'll be fine."
Hawk was asked how OSU's linebackers compare with last year's group.
"On paper, we're probably not faster," he said with a laugh. "But hopefully we've got great game speed. A guy like Cie Grant, of course I'm not as fast as him and I play his spot, but hopefully I can duplicate some of his game speed."
Some of OSU's players have expressed concern that they'll be pacing around all day Saturday. They will have a lot of down time before the 8:10 p.m. kickoff. Hawk is not too worried about it.
"I think I'll be all right," he said. "I usually don't get too excited. I don't get too high, or too low. But, of course I'm always excited to get out there and play football. We've been waiting so long to open the season and we can't wait to get back on the field. It will be a long day, but it will be well worth it."
One final note: Hawk's older brother Ryan is a quarterback at Ohio University. He began his career at Miami University before transferring to OU prior to last year. Ryan Hawk has two years of eligibility remaining and is fighting to become the Bobcats' starter.
"As of right now, it's him and one other guy (Fred Ray) battling for the job," A.J. Hawk said. "We talk pretty much every day."
In OU's 17-3 win over Southeast Missouri State on Thursday, Hawk threw a 32-yard touchdown pass in his only completion of the night. He also rushed three times for 13 yards.