Redshirt sophomore defensive back Chris Hawkins had his best game as a Trojan Week 1 against Arkansas State in his first game starting at safety. He recorded his second career interception, thwarting the Red Wolves’ top first half scoring threat and recovered a fumble on a big hit from Jabari Ruffin.
But this weekend presents possibly the biggest game of his USC career. No, this isn’t the cliche story of the next game is always the biggest game.
Hawkins has more riding on the line this week than possibly any other game he’ll play while at USC. Something bigger than the game is at stake — family bragging rights.
Hawkins’ big brother (by four months), Armond Jr., happens to be a safety for Idaho. It’ll be the first and probably the last time the brothers will face off against one another.
“It’s been a competition ever since we were six years old. He had the upper hand early. I got it late. Now we’re on the same stage at the Division I football level,” Chris said. “It’s a competition when we’re out there. He wants to beat our offense when he’s out there and we’re going to beat there’s up.”
Chris and Armond Jr. are in constant contact with one another, but that has only been intensified this week with both trying to glean as much extra information about their opponent.
“I talk to him every day,” Chris said. “Trying to figure out what they’re trying to do and telling him lies about what we’re trying to do. It’s something that I look forward to. We have a lot of family coming to the game, so I’ve got to show out.”
A lot of family would be an understatement. The Hawkins’ family and friends network is bringing people from the Inland Empire and the family’s hometown of Rancho Cucamonga, but also areas as far as Oakland and Nevada. The Hawkins’ cheering section, which plans to have special shirts for the game, is expected to reach triple digits with the last head count totaling 101.
While Chris said he’d love for his brother to play receiver so that he could win ultimate bragging rights in the household with a one-on-one battle, he’s focused on doing his job and not trying to do too much — something defensive backs coach Keith Heyward said is a key for the cerebral safety and one he fulfilled in the opener.
“Chris did a good job. He played smart and he played solid and that’s what he needs to do. Communicate and handle his responsibility because once he does that, he’s good. If he doesn’t, he gets sidetracked and then he ends up out of position.”
For Chris, it was a right of passage game that rewarded him for the hard work he’s put into making the transition to safety after coming to USC as a cornerback, but losing his starting position to the uber-talented Adoree’ Jackson last year after Hawkins had issues drawing penalties for playing too aggressively with his hands on the outside.
“I feel like I’m at home right now,” Chris said immediately after the game Saturday night. “I was able to make some plays tonight that a lot of guys can’t make. So you know, I feel at home. I feel like I’m in the spot I’m supposed to be in.”
But Hawkins isn’t satisfied with one strong performance. He plans to build on the outing and continue to progress in his new position.
“It’s something I expect out of myself. I have high standards for myself, especially when I put that much effort into what I do. All my hard work is really paying off right now. I don’t want just two [turnovers]. I want to keep going every week.”
Armond Jr. also has made the transition from cornerback to safety in his redshirt sophomore season and earned his first start at free safety in the Vandals’ season-opening 45-28 loss to Ohio. It’s just something else the brothers have in common.
But Chris is not only a safety. Still having a relatively thin depth chart in the secondary, Heyward hasn’t been afraid to switch guys positions mid-game. He did it with Chris in the Arkansas State game after Jackson was injured returning a punt. With only three healthy cornerbacks, Heyward threw Chris back in at his former position.
If you weren’t paying attention, you wouldn’t have noticed because it wasn’t a move that Arkansas State was able to exploit in any way. Chris seamlessly moved outside and when tested, he was right there with his hand on a receiver ready to swat a pass away when the Red Wolves tried to pass for a touchdown in the second half.
“I coach my guys as to where you’ve got to be ready to go in there,” Heyward said. “It just happened to be Chris at that time.”
Just as he was prepared to step in at cornerback, Chris is ready for the biggest game ever in the Hawkins’ household.
“You know it’s something that I’m really looking forward to. It’s something I’ll treasure for the rest of my life.”