Defensive coordinator Mark Snyder first realized how tough linebacker A.J. Hawk was during two-a-days before the 2002 season. With sweat pouring down his face and the temperature reaching 95°, Hawk ignored Snyder‚Äôs pleas to take off his helmet. ‚ÄúHe was competing with himself, trying to see how long he could go,‚Äù says Snyder. ‚ÄúIt frightened me.‚Äù
As a sophomore last season, his first year as a starter, the 6'1", 238-pound Hawk scared the daylights out of opponents while making a team-high 106 tackles, including 13 for loss. He made a name for himself against N.C. State in the third game, during which he had 12 tackles, returned an interception 55 yards and stopped running back T.A. McClendon at the goal line to preserve a 44‚Äì38, triple-overtime victory. In Ohio State‚Äôs 35‚Äì28 win over Kansas State in the Fiesta Bowl, Hawk made 10 tackles and was named defensive MVP.
Hawk is one of four returning starters from a defensive unit that allowed the fewest yards per game by a Big Ten team over the past two seasons (309.3). Though young, the Buckeyes‚Äô defense is deep and talented, especially at linebacker, where Hawk will be joined by two highly regarded transfers, 6'2", 245pound junior Anthony Schlegel from Air Force and 6'1", 246-pound junior John Kerr from Indiana.
A native of Centerville, Ohio, Hawk was a relatively unheralded recruit when he arrived in Columbus two years ago, but he made a quick impression on the coaching staff. ‚ÄúWe do quite a few things on defense, and he came prepared mentally to handle them,‚Äù Snyder says. For Hawk it‚Äôs a matter of breaking the game down to its basics. ‚ÄúYou can line up however you want, run all the blitzes you want,‚Äù he says. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs the same game you play in the second grade--you try to get the guy with the ball.‚Äù
It‚Äôs no surprise that Hawk‚Äôs intensity carries over into his off-the-field passion: poker. ‚ÄúThere‚Äôs so much strategy involved,‚Äù says Hawk, who plays three to four times a week with friends and TiVos nearly every televised poker event. ‚ÄúYou can play a poker game for five or six hours. You can‚Äôt get tired and let the game slip.‚Äù That‚Äôs never a concern on the field. --Stewart Mandel
2003 RECORD 11‚Äì2 (6‚Äì2, T2 in Big Ten)
FINAL AP RANK 4 RETURNING STARTERS 11
KEY RETURNEES (2003 stats)
LB A.J. Hawk (Jr.)
Will contend for Butkus, Nagurski awards
WR Santonio Holmes (Soph.)
497 receiving yards, 7 TDs in last six games
CB Dustin Fox (Sr.)
Led Buckeyes with 55 individual tackles
DE Simon Fraser (Sr.)
Standing 6'6", he knocked down five passes
RB Lydell Ross (Sr.)
193 carries for 826 yards and 10 TDs
Yards per carry by Lydell Ross last year, the lowest average for Ohio State‚Äôs leading rusher in a season since Vince Workman‚Äôs 3.9 in 1987.
Sophomore strong safety Donte Whitner reminds many of hard-hitting former Buckeyes All-America safety Mike Doss, with the added benefit of corner cover skills. A 5'11" 200-pounder from Cleveland‚Äôs Glenville High, Whitner had 22 tackles and two picks as a reserve last season and will take over for departed AllAmerica Will Allen.
Sept. 4 CINCINNATI
18 at N.C. State
Oct. 2 at Northwestern
16 at Iowa
30 PENN STATE
Nov. 6 at Michigan State
13 at Purdue
RON SCHWANE/ICON SMI
PAIN, NO GAIN
A punishing tackler, Hawk (47) leads a unit that has been the conference‚Äôs best over the past two years.