All-Time Greatest – No. 17: A.J. Hawk

BuckeyeSports.com counts down the days until Ohio State's 2008 season opener with its list of the 50 greatest Buckeyes of all-time. The series continues today with No. 17: linebacker A.J. Hawk.

There is perhaps no better argument for the inexact science of recruiting than the case of A.J. Hawk. Lightly regarded in Ohio State's high-profile class of 2002, Hawk went on to become one of the top defenders and most beloved Buckeyes in recent years.

Born Jan. 6, 1984, in Kettering, Ohio, Aaron James Hawk was one of the top high school linebacker prospects in Ohio under he missed much of his senior season due to a knee injury. Even so, he managed to record 84 tackles and two sacks for Centerville High School, the same program that sent quarterback Kirk Herbstreit and kicker Mike Nugent to the Buckeyes.

But when it came time for postseason honors to go out, Hawk was shuffled out of the spotlight. Because of the nature of his injury, he was downgraded to only the 21st best player in Ohio and ranked the country's No. 30 outside linebacker prospect.

Even with 20/20 hindsight, it seems difficult to imagine anyone could have rated that many players ahead of Hawk. Thankfully for OSU fans, head coach Jim Tressel had been tracking the Centerville star for some time. Tressel knew that Hawk had put up huge numbers during his freshman, sophomore and junior seasons for the Elks, finishing with 585 career tackles.

When Tressel offered a scholarship, Hawk quickly accepted, spurning an offer to play for Joe Paterno at Penn State.

But when Hawk arrived at Ohio State in the fall of 2002, the 6-2, 230-pounder found himself in the background again. Not only was he far behind starters such as Matt Wilhelm, Cie Grant and Robert Reynolds on the depth chart at linebacker, Hawk was also considered only the third-best linebacker prospect the Buckeyes had signed that year behind Bobby Carpenter and Stan White Jr.

It didn't take long, however, for Hawk to begin showcasing his penchant for chasing down opposing ball-carriers from sideline to sideline. While Carpenter spent most of his first season on special teams and White was redshirted before switching to tight end, Hawk became a valuable backup during the Buckeyes' run to the national championship.

He rose to No. 2 on the depth chart behind Grant at the weak-side linebacker spot and responded by appearing in all 14 games (with one start) and registering 26 tackles, including 3½ for loss. Hawk also notched his first two career interceptions, including one he returned 34 yards for a touchdown during a 51-17 win over Kent State.

With Grant gone the following season, Hawk grabbed the weak-side starting spot and led the Buckeyes in tackles with 106. He topped off his sophomore campaign by earning first-team All-Big Ten honors and then being named defensive MVP of the 2003 Fiesta Bowl, a 35-28 win over Kansas State.

In 2004, Hawk upped his game even more. The media's preseason pick as the Big Ten's top defensive player, he didn't disappoint. He had eight games with 10 tackles or more, earned several first-team All-America honors and led the Buckeyes in tackles once again. His total of 141 stops were the most on the team in 18 years, and he was a semifinalist for the Butkus Award as college football's top linebacker.

Pro scouts and draft analysts projected him as a first-round selection in the 2005 NFL draft, but Hawk dismissed any notion of leaving school early. He returned for his senior season that fall and topped off a superlative career.

Serving as one of the team's co-captain, Hawk returned to campus with a new look. Gone was the short hair of the past, and in its place a long shock of blond hair reaching to the shoulders. The look was a tribute to the late Pat Tillman, who gave up an NFL career to enlist in the U.S. Army. Tillman was killed in Afghanistan in 2004.

Hawk took inspiration from Tillman's story and his teammates took inspiration from him. As a result, Hawk spearheaded a staunch Ohio State defense and helped the Buckeyes to within an eyelash of the national championship.

OSU finished the season with a 10-2 record, experiencing only a three-point loss to eventual national champion Texas and a seven-point defeat at Penn State, which finished the season ranked No. 3.

Hawk led the Buckeyes in tackles for the third consecutive season, becoming only the second player since 1970 to accomplish that feat. Fellow linebackers Marcus Marek (1980-82) and Steve Tovar (1990-92) are the others. Hawk also led the team that season with 16½ tackles for loss and 9½ sacks.

The most productive game of his senior season came during a 35-24 win over Michigan State. Hawk totaled 19 tackles against the Spartans, one of five games in which he had double-digit stops. He finished things off with a 12-tackle performance in the 2006 Fiesta Bowl as the Buckeyes rolled to a 34-20 victory over Notre Dame.

Once the season was over, the accolades started pouring in. Hawk earned his third consecutive All-Big Ten honor, was named to his second straight All-America team and was the Big Ten's defensive player of the year. Putting the icing on the cake was the Lombardi Award, given annually to the top defensive lineman or linebacker in college football.

Hawk finished his Ohio State career with 394 tackles, good for fifth on the school's all-time list. His 196 solo stops rank seventh in school history while his 198 assists are good for fourth behind Marek (316, 1979-82), Tom Cousineau (310, 1975-78) and Chris Spielman (263, 1984-87).

The Green Bay Packers made Hawk the fifth overall selection in the 2006 NFL draft, and he immediately jumped into the starting lineup for the Pack. His 155 tackles in 2006 were the second-most ever recorded by a Packers rookie (Rich Wingo had 166 in 1979), and his 112 solo tackles ranked third in the league that year.

He also was named the team's defensive rookie of the year in '06 and finished third in the Associated Press Defensive Rookie of the Year voting.

In his two seasons, Hawk has started all 32 regular-season games for Green Bay, and totaled 224 tackles, 4½ sacks, three interceptions, 13 passes defended, two forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries.

Yesterday: No. 18 Art Schlichter

Tomorrow: No. 16


Buckeye Sports Top Stories