CLEMSON – The man in the middle is ready for the season to start, and just a few minutes of conversation with Corico Hawkins would have almost any Clemson fan ready to suit up and take the field on Saturday.
Hawkins is the sophomore from Milledgeville, Ga., who took over as the starting middle linebacker in the spring, and when he spoke with the media on Monday in the West Zone, the excitement was palpable in his voice as he described his thoughts on the upcoming season.
First among those thoughts was what he expects out of the front seven, not only this Saturday but for the entire season.
“Not only me, but the whole front seven will be very active,” Hawkins said. “One of the things that I’m going to bring to the table today [at practice], is that I’m going to challenge everybody. I want our defense to be ranked number one in the nation in run defense, so I’m going to bring to the table today that starting this weekend that we are going to be the number one team in the nation in run defense. So, I’m going to challenge the guys that we are going to stop the run every weekend, no matter who we play. I think that will be a great challenge for us as a defense to start the season off. So we are going to see what that brings.”
The Tigers kick off the season against North Texas on Saturday at 3:30 p.m., and the main target for Tiger defenders will be junior running back Lance Dunbar, who rumbled for 1,378 yards and 19 touchdowns a season ago, finishing 14th in the country at 114 rushing yards per game.
Hawkins said Dunbar has already caught the eye of Clemson defenders.
“I think number five [Dunbar], he has the talent to play anywhere in the country,” Hawkins said. “I don’t know his standards coming out of high school, but I’m pretty sure that some people overlooked him and are thinking, ‘we should’ve taken this guy’. He’s a great athlete, he can run. We have to make sure we hit our gaps and are keeping him between the tackles and hopefully we’ll be able to stop him.”
North Texas has a new offensive coordinator in Mike Canales, who was the offensive coordinator at South Florida last season. He was also the passing game coordinator and receivers coach at N.C. State in 2001 and 2002, and Hawkins said the Tigers are expecting multiple looks out of the Mean Green offense.
“They run a lot of different things. I think we’ll be in nickel personnel for the majority of the game and they’ll try to get you- get some mismatches here and there,” Hawkins said. “They’re gonna run the football, and if they can’t run the football then they’ll go to the passing game. All in all they’re going to try to run the football- be very physical and try to run the football. “
Hawkins then said he feels like the defensive coaching staff has the team well-prepared for what North Texas will probably run.
“No. The coaches did prepare us well,” he said. “They’ve been doing this steady- what we need to work on as a team and what North Texas is going to bring to the table offensively. So, we are pretty confident that the stuff we’ve been practicing is the stuff we’re going to see on game day, but of course everyone’s going to have stuff that we’re going to have to adjust to.
“But, for the most part we’re pretty set on what they’re going to do and of course they have a new offensive coordinator. He has different players, but the coordinator is going to be the coordinator no matter what- the system, the position, and their location may change, but they’re going to do will remain the same.”
The Tigers’ struggles against the run at the end of last season are well-documented, and Hawkins said Saturday will be a good test to see how far the team has come during the offseason.
“It’s going to be a great challenge,” he said. “They have some great guys and we have some great football players up front and in our linebacking corps, so it’s going to be very interesting to see. I’m going to challenge these guys to step up this weekend and we are going to send a message out to everybody in the country that we are going to stop the run and be very effective against the run.”