The Anchor

With a year of starting under his belt, junior Center A.J. Hawkins is much more comfortable with his surroundings and being "in charge" of the OL traffic.

Ole Miss junior Center A.J. Hawkins gets it now.

There was a time, like with most young players, he didn't, but getting a starting job, and having to battle to keep it, has taught him how "the cow ate cabbage."

"When I first got on the team the spring of 2009 after sitting out the fall semester (greyshirt), I found out quickly I was athletically good enough," said A.J., "but what I had to learn was the intensity and consistency required."

Offensive Line Coach Mike Markuson took that a step further.

"I could tell right off the bat he had talent - good feet, picked things up well, strong, athletic," said Mike. "What he didn't do was bring it every play. That's the case with a lot of young guys.

"Aaron would hit a wall and take plays off, but when we moved him to center, and he got some competition (Evan Swindall), he learned to fight through fatigue and give his best effort every snap. That's when he became a player."

In 2010, even though the Rebels had a poor year, Hawkins got better each week, mentally and physically.

"A.J. knows what to do now. He had to go through a learning curve part of last year, but once he got over that hump, he's shown steady improvement ever since," Markuson said.

Ancient history.

Now, Hawkins leads a touted Rebel offensive line as a second-year starter. The man in the middle, directing traffic and making things happen.

Mike Markuson
File Photo

"There is always room for improvement," said Hawkins, "but we've worked hard and we are really excited about the first game. We are anxious to see where we are as a unit.

"I feel pretty good about our progress. We are working with two new starting guards, but Patrick (Junen) played a good bit last year and has settled in nicely this fall camp. Matt (Hall) has not played in games in a while, but he's performing well in practice. It's time to see him work when it counts. I don't have any concerns about him, it's just time for him to do it in games."

From his personal standpoint, Hawkins is confident in his abilities.

"I am better this year at directing traffic and in understanding defenses," he stated. "I know what we are trying to do on every play and I understand the game ten times more than I did last year. That's what experience gives you.

"Sometimes I look at film from the past and remember guys telling me what I was doing wrong. Now, I'm the one telling guys what they are doing wrong. It's not that I don't make mistakes any more, it's just I know when I make them and when everyone else makes them. That allows me to play faster. I have confidence and knowledge and that allows me to play fast, much faster than before."

Hawkins knows the expectations for the offensive line are high, but he wants it that way.

"In our league, it all starts up front. We want that responsibility, we want to be the rock of the offense," he explained. "We've had a good fall camp. The defense got us a few times when they pulled out some blitzes and overpopulated the line at times, but overall we feel like we can block whoever we face."

It's a man's world in the trenches, however, and A.J. understands the chances for injury and the need for quality backups.

"I have faith in a lot of our guys. Tank (Alex Washington) has played a lot of football here and can get the job done," he said. "Jared Duke played some last year and is a quality player. Emmanuel McCray has had a real good fall camp. Evan is an excellent player. They will come in and keep things going at the same tempo. I would trust any of those guys and that's what it's all about when bodies are flying around you - knowing what to do and trusting the guy next to you.

"And I really like what the freshman (Aaron Morris) has brought to the group. He's real physical. When you tell him where to go and what to do, he will go do it and he'll hit somebody in the mouth at the same time."

Saturday, the Rebels are facing a tough opening match in BYU, but A.J. doesn't feel that's any different than facing the SEC opponents they will face week-in and week-out during the season.

"We are preparing for them just like we prepare for any team, like they are Alabama or Auburn or LSU or Georgia," he noted. "We're going to work on their stuff all week and get ready for a great game.

A.J. Hawkins
Chuck Rounsaville

"They have been talking a lot through the papers and on the internet, but that's not really our style. We're just going to save that energy for the game."

A.J.'s approach to the game has matured a lot in the past 12-18 months so it comes as no surprise he give a mature answer when asked if he feels he one of the best centers in the SEC and even in the nation.

"I don't know how good other centers are. All I can do is concentrate on what I do. I work hard, I know what I am doing and I have come a long way," he closed. "I didn't even know I was going to play center when I first got here, so I'm still a work in progress, but it's nice to be mentioned in the preseason some. We'll just have to see where it goes from here.

"From experience, I have learned that no matter what happens, good or bad, it's over and you have to keep moving forward, regardless of results. The only thing that matters is the next play, the next series, the next practice rep, the next game."

A.J. "gets it" now.

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