GREEN BAY – Josh Hawkins knows the story well by now. The tale of the young cornerback who starts humbly as an undrafted rookie and blossoms into a Pro Bowler.
It was passed down to Hawkins shortly after he signed with the Packers as a college free agent out of East Carolina. While the odds were long given how deep Green Bay was at the position, the story of Sam Shields resonated with Hawkins.
He strove to be just like him – right down to his outfitting.
“I wore the arm bands, the tape, the white gloves just like him,” Hawkins said. “Some of the guys, they called me ‘Little Sam Shields.’ I’m just trying to play like him. I try to mold my game after him.”
Shields was a good muse for Hawkins. One of the greatest undrafted finds in franchise history, Shields recorded 245 tackles, 66 passes defensed and 18 interceptions in 80 regular-season games.
Hawkins, who ran a sub-4.4 time in the 40-yard dash at his college pro day, doesn’t know whether he would beat Shields in a foot race. He never got the chance after Shields sustained a concussion in the 2016 opener that eventually landed him on injured reserve.
However, Hawkins did have four months between the start of the offseason program and Week 1 in Jacksonville to learn from Shields, taking notes on his playstyle and technique.
“Some press technique because he’s a real press guy, hand-to-hand guy,” Hawkins said. “Getting my head turned around quicker, always playing that deep ball first thing you really want to play. He’s really taught me a lot. He’s a great guy.”
Hawkins has been putting all of his work over the last year to work in his second training camp with the Packers. He received his first NFL start Saturday night against Washington due to injuries to Davon House (hamstring) and Damarious Randall (concussion).
Like last year when Hawkins was one of five undrafted rookies to make the Packers’ opening roster, the 5-foot-10, 189-pound cornerback made the most of the opportunity.
Hawkins had seven tackles (two on special teams) and three passes defensed with his 37 defensive snaps leading all Green Bay cornerbacks. Two of those deflections helped prevent touchdowns, a catalyst in the Packers’ eventual 21-17 triumph.
After reviewing the game film, Head Coach Mike McCarthy praised Hawkins during his Sunday afternoon news conference for how he responded to the additional playing time.
“Hawkins went out and he had the highest grade of the corners last night, so that was exciting to see because it was an opportunity that he had earned,” McCarthy said. “And with that he stepped up and performed.”
Hawkins was a scratch in five of the Packers’ 16 regular-season games last year, but his speed and uniquely long arms for a 5-10 cornerback present position coach Joe Whitt Jr. with an exciting prospect to mold.
It also had special-teams coordinator Ron Zook clamoring for Hawkins’ activation on game days, according to McCarthy.
“I think the fact that Josh was on our 53-man roster last year tells you how we felt about him,” McCarthy said. “If you look at last year, played very well on special teams. Maybe not as far as his game opportunities, but throughout the second half of the season our special teams coaches were very high on him and fighting to get him up on a weekly basis.
“So the fact that he’s taken that second-year step is not a surprise to any of us.”
Hawkins trained with former Auburn and Falcons cornerback David Irons back in Atlanta this offseason. Together, they worked on “tightening the screws” in Hawkins’ game through a chorus of two-a-day workouts.
He came to Green Bay with little fanfare. Most of the outside focus was on returning veteran House, the health of Randall and Quinten Rollins, and the addition of second-round pick Kevin King.
Steadily, Hawkins has started to make his own waves. Saturday night was a good first test, pairing Hawkins against Pro Bowl tight end Vernon Davis in multiple red-zone situations and another end-zone deflection on a short pass intended for receiver Ryan Grant.
Hawkins says he didn’t realize how much of an advantage his arm length could be until the pre-draft process, but he’s starting to see why it’s such a big deal in the eyes of coaches and scouts.
While his hunger for an interception rages, Hawkins’ mentality is unchanged. It doesn’t matter if he’s with the starting, second- or third-team unit when he’s on the field, Hawkins is there to make plays in coordinator Dom Capers’ defense.
“At some point in time I was going to make myself one of those, I guess, top-4 or top-5 guys. I just had to go out there and prove it,” Hawkins said. “I know I’m fast. I’m probably one of the fastest in the group, so I must be putting my ability to use so I can be seen and Coach Whitt and Dom they’re like, ‘We’ve got to put (number) 28 somewhere on that field.’”
Hawkins doesn’t know how everything will sort out once House and Randall return. The Packers also have Rollins, King and third-year veteran LaDarius Gunter competing for roles in the defense.
At the moment, he’s focused on staying on the 53-man roster. Hawkins hopes to use his skill set to help him earn a job for years to come with the Packers like Shields before him.
“I’m going to keep practicing and playing like I know how to. That’s it,” Hawkins said. “Whatever Coach Whitt and Dom choose to do, that’s what they choose to do. I’m trying to move from Coach Whitt and Dom’s back pocket to their front pocket, so if somebody goes down, they’ll be like, ‘Hey, we’ve got Hawkins. We’re good. No worries.’”