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?s pleas to take off his helmet. ?He was competing with himself, trying to see how long he could go,? says Snyder. ?It frightened me.?
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?38, triple-overtime victory. In Ohio State?s 35?28 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? 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. ?We do quite a few things on defense, and he came prepared mentally to handle them,? Snyder says. For Hawk it?s a matter of breaking the game down to its basics. ?You can line up however you want, run all the blitzes you want,? he says. ?It?s the same game you play in the second grade--you try to get the guy with the ball.?
It?s no surprise that Hawk?s intensity carries over into his off-the-field passion: poker. ?There?s so much strategy involved,? says Hawk, who plays three to four times a week with friends and TiVos nearly every televised poker event. ?You can play a poker game for five or six hours. You can?t get tired and let the game slip.? That?s never a concern on the field. -- Stewart Mandel