Big 12 Campus Correspondent
Due to the amount of injuries that Colorado's defense has run into this season, in particular the defensive backfield, certain players have been asked to step into a bigger role, one that they have practiced years for.
"I've been training hard and working hard for this opportunity," said junior CB Jonathan Hawkins after a series of injuries gave him a larger role on the defense. "When an opportunity is presented to me, it's just me maintaining and going over defenses, training harder, making sure I understand our defense and our offense."
Headed into Colorado's first game of the season, Hawkins was listed third on the depth chart in the cornerback position and wasn't even on the chart at nickel back.
Injuries started affecting the nickel back position after just the first three plays of the season against Colorado State on Sept. 4, when Parker Orms was taken out of the game due to a knee injury. Travis Sanderfeld replaced Orms, but hurt his ankle in the second game of the season at California on Sept. 11. Paul Vigo stepped up to secure the position in CU's third game at home against Hawaii on Sept. 18, but followed suit and was removed from the field due to a lower leg injury.
It was after Vigo's injury that Hawkins was put into the mix at nickel back along with Liloa Nobriga, an outside linebacker by trade. Hawkins was used there against teams in the run and shoot and Nobriga against more physical running teams.
To put a cap on the defensive injury domino effect that this season came accustomed to, CB Jimmy Smith suffered a concussion in CU's game against Baylor, which directly gave Hawkins the opportunity he had been training for.
"It's just me stepping up and helping the team mostly," said Hawkins. "I'm one of the older guys on the team and have been here a while, which means you just have to step up when you're called on."
Hawkins has looked up to both of Colorado's senior cornerbacks Jimmy Smith and Jalil Brown, and he credits their ability to helping him assist the defense.
"I just watched those guys and learned from them in the past three years," said Hawkins. "Seeing their technique and their growth as players has helped me as a player. It helps when you have to come in and back them up. People scout our defense and scout them, so if one of them goes out, the person behind them has to be just as aggressive and physical. It's a competition every day, and that's a good thing about our defense - we can compete with each other to get better and to raise our level of game."
With Smith and Brown graduating after the conclusion of this season, Hawkins looks forward to potentially seeing more playing time in 2011.
"I show the coaches that I can practice consistently, and in the game I show them that I can play by making plays and making tackles," said Hawkins. "All that will carry over into next season.
"Most importantly it's a team sport, and I'm mostly just out here trying to make plays and trying to contribute as much as I can."
Hawkins is a team player and his desire to help the defense has not gone unnoticed.
"You have to be mentally focused and strong to do what J-Hawk has done this year," said assistant coach Ashley Ambrose. "What I always tell our guys is all it takes is one play and you're in the game. It takes a lot for a guy who hasn't been playing as much to go in for somebody who's injured, that's a huge deal. He stepped up and made some plays and did a decent job when he went out there. That's what I like about the kid, he will just go out and do some good things for us."
Hawkins, a native of Harbor City, Calif., graduated from Rancho Verde High School in 2006 and gray-shirted, which meant that he didn't officially arrive on campus until January 2007, making the next football season his first as a Buffalo.
In the previous three seasons, Hawkins totaled three tackles on special teams in 2009 with a total of five points on the season, and in 2008, he played in one game at defensive back.
This season Hawkins has seen action in six games for a total of 192 plays. He has tallied 14 tackles with nine of those being unassisted.
Hawkins has put his time in and claims he is just "getting [his] opportunity."
"That's what happens when you're on good teams; you have to wait your turn. It wasn't an excitement of seeing people go down, it was more of getting my opportunity to start going and start showing the coaches they can trust me if something else happens. That's really what my mind frame has been."
A difficult mind frame to stay in when you have only played in two games since playing high school football four seasons ago.
"It's rough; he was put in a tough situation," said Brown. "He went from gray-shirting, to not playing a lot, to finding a spot on the team. He's made tremendous strides this season and to play how he did against Baylor and not give up any big plays shows his maturity and progress he has made. When we (he and Smith) leave, he'll be one of the guys who can step in and play the corner back position in the future here."