Junior college transfer Donald Hawkins may be the projected starting left tackle for Texas this fall. But Jim Jones, the offensive line coach at Northwest Mississippi Community College, remembers how much of a project he figured Hawkins would be nearly two years ago.
Not just because Hawkins came from a broken home in Tunica, Miss., and was a non-qualifier academically (with offers only from Mississippi State, Memphis and Arkansas State out of high school).
But because Hawkins was only 250 pounds.
"Donald came here and had a lot of academic work to do and a lot of work to do football-wise," Jones said. "He had a lot of talent when he got here. But he needed to get a lot stronger, and he definitely had a lot to get done in school. That was a big challenge."
It was a challenge Jones wasn't sure Hawkins was ready for. And then Hawkins basically told Jones he'd do anything the coaches wanted to get a shot at a big-time school.
"Donald came here in 2010 and from day one said, 'I'm coming to work and work hard.' And that's what he did," Jones said.
EXCEEDING EXPECTATIONS: Hawkins grew into his 6-foot-5 frame in his two seasons at Northwest while working tirelessly in the weight room, putting on nearly 50 pounds in one and a half years. Hawkins also buried himself in tutors and loaded up on course credits to keep as many college doors open as possible.
"Like a lot of kids we coach around here, it's a big credit to Donald to get where he's gotten because of where he came from," Jones said. "He's from a single parent, low-income household. He had his challenges that made this journey tougher. But to his credit, he took care of everything he had to. He's been very goal oriented since he got here."
The biggest challenge was the academic work in many respects, Jones said.
"Last year, he took six hours in each summer school session," Jones said. "Most kids just take six hours in a summer. He took 12. And during the semesters, he took 18 hours, when most kids start with 15 and drop down to 12 during the season. But he stuck with 18.
"Math and English are usually a struggle for the non-qualifiers like Donald. But every day after practice and our meetings, Donald would meet with tutors every single day to get things right academically."
The goal for Hawkins was to get out of Northwest by last Christmas so he could participate in spring ball somewhere.
"Donald knew that would make him more valuable to a school to be able to come in early and learn the offense in the spring," Jones said. "He set his mind on that and got there.
"To his credit, he sought out all the help he needed, put in a lot of time and exceeded all expectations in year one and year two."
UNCOACHABLE GIFTS: While Hawkins was digging deep in the classroom and adding muscle in the weight room, he was wowing his coaches with excellent footwork.
"Donald has some things about the way he can move his feet and bend while still maintaining leverage that are really uncoachable," Jones said. "That's just something he has.
"And probably toward the end of 2010, I started thinking Donald could become a national recruit and not just a candidate for schools in this area like Memphis and Arkansas State, who were recruiting him out of high school.
"While he was improving on his fundamentals and did a great job of that, it was easy for anyone who watched him to see he had some things you can't teach - the ability to move, bend and strike an opponent - all while maintaining balance. That's hard to find."
Texas offensive line coach Stacy Searels heard about Hawkins while visiting with the staff at junior college national champion East Mississippi Community College, which produced Texas DT Brandon Moore.
Hawkins turned in some of his best work against East Mississippi CC defensive end Denico Autry, who had offers from USC, Miami, Florida State and others before picking Mississippi State. Autry is projected as a starter for Dan Mullen's Bulldogs this season.
HOLDING UP: While most teams committed double teams to Autry, Jones left Hawkins one-on-one against him, and Hawkins didn't let him down.
"Autry was ranked as the best defensive end to come through our league in years," Jones said. "Autry is 6-5, 255, athletic and most everyone was committing two blockers to him. We left Donald alone against him, and Autry never touched our quarterback one time.
"For the pass-blocking stuff where you're one-on-one, we were so confident in Donald that we were able to help the other way by pushing the protection to the right," Jones said. "We left Donald to handle the rusher out there one on one, like we did all year. We didn't change it for that game, and it showed our confidence and belief in Donald.
"He went above and beyond what everyone expected, because Autry didn't touch our quarterback."
That was enough for Searels to see. An offer went out. Then Mack Brown and Searels went to visit. Hawkins then visited Texas, and in mid-December of 2011, Hawkins signed to become a Longhorn.
Just like Jones was blown away by Hawkins' constant improvement at Northwest, he was also stunned to learn Hawkins basically walked in as the starting left tackle at Texas.
"We were not expecting that," Jones said. "Not at Texas."
When Hawkins first arrived at Texas, some on the team thought he was a little overconfident and unapproachable. Players have since found Hawkins a good fit on the team.
"That might have been a little bit of nervous energy," Jones said. "Because it took him about a week or two of spring ball to see that everyone else at Texas was pretty damn good, too, and that it was going to take his best every day."
Jones said Hawkins can be guarded, but he warms up as he gets to know people.
"When he's got to take care of business and really focus, he'll do that," Jones said. "But when he can relax, he'll show you a goofy side and enjoys being around his teammates."
KEY ADDITION: Hawkins' success this season will go a long way in determining the success of the Texas offense. If Hawkins can hold up against Big 12 competition, and Texas quarterbacks have more time to throw, the offense could make the kind of progress Mack Brown is looking for.
Brown took two junior college players in his first 13 years at Texas (punter Brian Bradford and OL Alfio Randall). Then took two in one year in Hawkins and DT Brandon Moore.
"I'm glad we took both of them," Mack Brown said. "I think they'll both be factors in the fall. We've decided we'll take a junior college player if he can fit an immediate need. The two young men have done great."
That praise is well-earned by Hawkins, according to Jones.
"Donald didn't want to look back with any regrets," Jones said. "He wanted to be able to look back and say, 'I did everything I could to make my way to a top school and play at a place I truly deserve.' He challenged me to push him as hard as I could. He wasn't going to back down from that. He put in the work."
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