Sophomore safety Brad Hawkins saw the ball go up. He turned his hips, his eyes fixated on the opportunity that he’d long awaited.
“(I) thought it was mine,” Hawkins said Tuesday.
Of course, it wasn’t.
Instead, Notre Dame receiver Chris Finke leapt over Hawkins’ back, snatching a 43-yard touchdown that sent the stadium into a frenzy and gave the Irish a 14-0 lead halfway through the first quarter, a lead Notre Dame carried through the end of the game Saturday.
“He Moss’d him,” exclaimed television commentator Mike Tirico, referencing a play hall-of-fame receiver Randy Moss might make. Finke is 5-foot-10, half a foot shorter than Moss.
Four plays after replacing junior safety Josh Metellus, who was ejected for targeting, the 6-foot-2 Hawkins found himself the victim of a surefire poster. It was far from the auspicious start Hawkins might have imagined after countless hours honing his coverage skills, lifting in the weight room, watching film.
Defensive coordinator Don Brown simply told him he’d make the play next time, that all he can do is move on. At halftime, Hawkins spoke with Metellus who relayed a similar message. Hawkins saw the game as his opportunity — one that some never see. He wasn’t going to let a single play derail that.
“It happens,” Hawkins said. “I moved on to the next play, and I continued to play the way I know I’m capable of playing. … I definitely was surprised, but it happens.”
Hawkins came into the program as the 66th-ranked receiver in the country, according to 247Sports’ composite ranking. But when he got on campus, Brown approached him with a proposition.
Brown asked Hawkins to do something most with that pedigree would scoff at; he wanted him to switch to the defensive side of the ball. Far from opposition, Hawkins was eager to make the move — in fact, he’d decided during his senior year at Suffield Academy in New Jersey in 2016 that his future would be best as a defensive back.
That’s where he concluded his size and ability fit best in his football future. It doesn’t mean the move came without trepidation.
“I thought I was going to be bad at covering,” Hawkins said, retrospectively, thinking about when he first made the move to defense in 2017. “Coming into this system, you’re playing man. I’d never really covered anybody in my life, honestly.”
Hawkins turned to Devin Bush Sr., on Michigan’s staff as a defensive analyst at the time, for guidance. Bush Sr. played safety at Florida State and then in the NFL for eight years, winning championships at both levels. He lent Hawkins some tricks of the trade during a freshman season in which Hawkins played sparsely.
“Coach Bush helped me a lot with my covering,” Hawkins said. “Just him playing in the league. He has a lot of experience. He’s a winner. He has a national championship, he has a Super Bowl. Having that type of mind in the safety room with you is definitely a help.”
With more refined technique and 20 extra pounds, Hawkins came into camp and earned praise from the coaching staff.
Though Metellus and senior safety Tyree Kinnel came into the spring and fall entrenched as the returning starting safety duo, Hawkins fought to claim the role of next man up. Sure enough, that became a necessity eight minutes into the season.
On the road in a hostile environment, against a top-15 team, Hawkins was ready.
“About two plays,” he said, when asked how long it took to become comfortable. “I just went in there and just did my job. It’s something that I’ve been doing for the past two years now. I thought I was comfortable back there.”
For some, in the interim, the touchdown will mask all. It’s a play Hawkins should have made. He knows that.
Those people will then forget Hawkins’ six tackles and one pass deflection, his strong positioning and dutiful work all night in replacing Metellus.
His teammates are not among them.
“I think he did well,” said sophomore linebacker Josh Ross. “He’s also a young guy that came in. But we’re all trying to get to the level where we’re above anybody and everybody.”