Defensive tackle Anttaj Hawthorne is on the watch list for three major college football awards. He is on numerous preseason All-American teams and is widely regarded as one of the best defensive football players in the nation. He has started 29 straight games and is coming off a dominating season in which he had 20 tackles for loss, tied for the second most in the Big Ten.
"I thought he was the best defensive lineman in the league last year," said Wisconsin defensive line coach John Palermo, who is not one to hand out idle praise.
"I would be very disappointed if he doesn't have a great year," Palermo said. "He is a very talented individual."
Impressive, yes, but Hawthorne is far from satisfied. There is still room for improvement.
"It was a lot of fun because I made more plays," Hawthorne said of his 2003 campaign. "I'd like to push myself a little bit harder this year and do better than I did last year."
Take those 20 TFLs for instance, and compare them to his sack totals: four last season, six for his career. Hawthorne's personal goal last season was to get 10 sacks.
"I found myself last year in certain passing situations coming off the ball and I had a lot of hurries last year but I just wasn't getting to the quarterback quick enough," Hawthorne said. He was credited with five hurries, tied for second most on the team.
This year, Hawthorne has once again set his sights on the magic number 10. In order to get there, he is working on his hand technique and how to get offensive linemen's mitts off of him faster.
"Getting a guy's hands off me, will help out a lot, just get me there a step quicker and have a lot more sacks," Hawthorne said.
So will playing on a veteran line that includes four senior starters: ends Jonathan Welsh and Erasmus James and tackle Jason Jefferson join Hawthorne. In addition, sophomore Joe Monty is considered a co-starter at end and will often spell Welsh and James.
"We've got great players running off the edge, you know, to force the quarterback back up in the pocket," Hawthorne said.
Another resolution for Hawthorne is to stay on his feet. After watching film from last season, Hawthorne said he saw himself on the ground too often, a sentiment Palermo echoes. It is though to get to the ball, of course, if you are sitting on the turf.
Whether talking hands or feet, though, any improvement out of Hawthorne will turn opposing offensive coordinators into insomniacs.
Put simply, Hawthorne is a disruptor. He occupies blockers, drawing double and even triple teams. But despite the well-earned attention he receives, he continues to make plays, including 143 tackles the past two seasons, most of any UW defensive lineman.
Last season, Hawthorne's play was acknowledged with a first-team all-conference selection from Big Ten media and second team designation from conference coaches. This year, he is a candidate for the Outland Trophy (given to nation's top offensive or defensive lineman), Lombardi Award (offensive or defensive lineman) and Nagurski Award (defensive player). Last April, NFL draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. named Hawthorne the No. 7 senior in the nation regardless of position.
"As far as Mel Kiper goes, that doesn't mean a damn thing," Palermo said. "It's not where you start, it's where you finish. A lot of guys he's picked started in the top 10 and ended being drafted in the seventh round. Because it all comes down to one thing, you have to play and you have to perform on Saturdays.
"He just needs to keep playing the way he played last year. Just improve fundamentally a little bit and probably keep a higher motor, particularly earlier in the season. He doesn't like to play a whole lot in the heat. He likes the cooler weather better. But he's got to push himself through the hot weather."
That leads to resolution No. 3: keep that motor turning. On a bad day, Hawthorne is a very good defensive tackle. When he revs it up, however, he simply cannot be blocked.
"Sometimes he's been high energy, sometimes he hasn't," Palermo said.
"It's just like this button that clicks," Hawthorne said. "Sometimes it's on, sometimes it's off."
When it's on, watch out. Hawthorne pinpoints the 2002 Alamo Bowl as an example. Early in that game, Colorado cornerback Donald Strickland took an interception 91 yards for a touchdown. Strickland's celebration afterwards upset Hawthorne.
"I went in, confronted my teammates about it, you know, ‘are you going to let him do that?'" Hawthorne said.
The idea was to psyche up his teammates but it also amped up Hawthorne, who proceeded to make eight tackles in the Badgers' 31-28 win, thoroughly punishing a solid Colorado offensive line in the process.
Once the motor starts cranking, it does not slow down until the final whistle.
"The bigger the play, the better it is, the better I feel," Hawthorne said.
It is that spirit, and a never-ceasing commitment to his teammates, that led to Hawthorne becoming one of the Badgers' four captains this year.
"He just gets people pumped," junior linebacker Dontez Sanders said. "He goes out there, he's the example. If you see a captain out there, going hard every play, just getting pumped, pushing a teammate, everybody wants to feed off of that. That's a positive for us."
Hawthorne's leadership extends off the field as well.
"Players come to me with problems and I try to get them solved, try my best to bend my back for these guys," he said. "These guys are my teammates, it's really my family, to tell you the truth. If they've got something wrong and I don't come through, then I'm going to do my best to correct it."
Driven to improve, succeed
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