After long-winding path to Michigan, Hawkins settling in on defense

Freshman linebacker Brad Hawkins has spent time returning kicks this year while acclimating to his role at VIPER.

Freshman linebacker Brad Hawkins has spent time returning kicks this year while acclimating to his role at VIPER. Buy this photo
Amelia Cacchione/Daily
Tuesday, October 24, 2017 - 9:18pm

Brad Hawkins committed to Michigan over two years ago on July 3, 2015. 

Then ranked as a four-star athlete from New Jersey, Hawkins expected to sign with the Wolverines in February of 2016 and arrive on campus that summer.

As it turned out, his path to Ann Arbor would be longer than expected.

While he was academically qualified, an NCAA Clearinghouse issue popped up. Hawkins had attended two high schools in Camden, and the first school hadn’t submitted his transcript to the NCAA. Because of the miscommunication, Hawkins wouldn’t find out his status until mid-summer of 2016 at the earliest — too late for him to participate in Michigan’s summer program.

Faced with the decision of waiting for an answer from the NCAA — that he couldn’t even be sure would clear him — or taking a prep year, Hawkins chose the latter. His coaches at Camden High School helped him look for a new school that he could attend before arriving at Michigan as a member of the 2017 class.

Suffield Academy, led by head coach Drew Gamere, quickly stood out as an option.

“I’d been in contact with one of the coaches and I think they felt like Brad could benefit from an extra year anyway,” Gamere told The Daily in July. “We had Brad on campus, and he just struck me right away as a great kid. Very humble and eager to learn and develop his skills — football being one of them, but then everything else that comes with it. The study skills in the classroom, all that stuff.”

In initial conversations, Gamere sensed Hawkins was disappointed he wouldn’t be able to enroll at Michigan as planned. But that emotion, according to Gamere, quickly turned to excitement once Hawkins visited Suffield’s campus and met his future teammates and coaching staff.

Gamere himself, of course, was excited for the opportunity to coach a player of Hawkins’ caliber — and personality.

“He was a pleasure to work with and very coachable, and I think that for us, it was the most important thing,” Gamere said, “because you don’t always get that with the guys that are the most talented.”

Gamere witnessed Hawkins continue to develop on the field as he recorded 51 receptions for 868 yards and 11 touchdowns. But the coach also saw personal growth from his new star — something that Jim Harbaugh quickly became aware of, as well.

“When Coach Harbaugh visited here, he said to us that he couldn’t believe how much Brad had grown,” Gamere said. “He had gone from this kid that didn’t really say much and was shy and didn’t talk much, to a guy that was giving Coach Harbaugh a tour and was as popular as anybody on campus.”

Things never wavered between Michigan and Hawkins, and he finally made his way to Ann Arbor this past summer. He’s appeared in several games thus far, mostly on special teams as a kick returner.

When asked whether his prep year gave him an advantage over other freshmen, Hawkins was non-committal. That’s not to say it didn’t change him, though.

“It just gave me a better year academically, basically,” Hawkins said Tuesday night. “I got a lot stronger, I got more mature, so that helped.”

One of the biggest questions facing Hawkins was which position he would play in college. In high school, he did most of his damage on offense while moonlighting as a safety.

He’s still practicing at multiple spots. But right now, it appears Hawkins is closer to figuring things out.

“Right now, I’m playing VIPER,” he said. “VIPER and safety.”

Hawkins had already moved to the secondary entering the season. But he didn’t start repping at Michigan’s hybrid linebacker-safety position until around when the Wolverines played Air Force.

Hawkins recalled that it wasn’t his decision. One day, the coaches simply told him he’d be moving to VIPER.

For someone who already went through one position change, it would have been understandable had Hawkins faced his next move with trepidation. After all, another switch means more time learning the system, more time studying the playbook — and less of a chance to hit the field.

Hawkins, though, has made the move with enthusiasm.

“I think that’s where I can make my money at in the future,” Hawkins said. “We made the move, and everything feels comfortable right now.”

Hawkins admitted that he still has to get used to his new position. He says he was used to “hanging out in the middle of the field” as a safety and needs to improve his blitzing.

But, according to him, things are still going smoothly.

“Everything’s falling in place right now,” Hawkins said. “I’m just being patient and just waiting my turn.”