Q&A with Chris Hawkins
There are plenty of reasons for Sun Devil fans to be excited about the upcoming 2021 season, and having a well-seasoned defensive backs unit is undoubtedly one significant aspect of those sentiments. We caught up with ASU’s position coach to discuss his impressions of this past season and the high bar of expectations moving forward.
DevilsDigest: Even though it lasted just four games, what were you able to learn from your defensive back during the 2020 season?
CH: “It just basically reassured me what I already knew. We’re one of the best, if not the best defensive back groups in the conference. I got two senior corners, both of them are coming back that are really, really good. Two senior safeties, both of them are coming back that will hold it down in the back end. Going into the (2020) season, I was a little bit nervous, being my first year, and everybody wants their position group to play well. And honestly, they surpassed my expectations for them. Now, all they’ve done was raise the bar to a level that next year, there shouldn’t be any fall off.”
DevilsDigest: Did you see any signs back in October that this would be a special season for the defensive backs?
CH: “Obviously, we started off with a tough challenge in USC who has the best receivers in the conference. And at the time, to a lot of people also had the best quarterback in the conference. I knew that was going to be a big test for me and my DB’s coming from there (USC) and knowing that offensive system and how explosive that receiving core can be. But that game really showed me how good my group can be. And I think us only playing four games was a blessing in disguise because I get my whole group back again. 2020 really was a preseason type season for us. And now we really got to build some momentum moving forward into 2021.”
DevilsDigest: What is your evaluation of Chase Lucas’ performance in 2020?
CH: “He was the best corner in the conference. Period. There was no corner that I saw on tape that was better than Chase Lucas last year. And I think a lot of people on the outside looking in noticed that as well. Moving forward, I think he has a real chance to be great this upcoming year. If he can put together a span of 11 to 12 games like he did those first four (in 2020), then we’re looking at a special player.”
DevilsDigest: What specifically makes Lucas such a special player?
CH: “His knowledge of the game. And I think as he’s gotten older, the game has become much slower for him. He’s always had a skill set. Even when I saw him when I played against him when he was a freshman, he’s always had the skill set to be great. I just think that he hasn’t always played confident. But this past year, he played really, really, confident, knowing that he was the guy. A lot of the times me and him just work on technique, and he’s one of the best technically that I’ve been around. He took a lot of confidence going into the season, and that carried him on. And if he stays this confident, it’s a good thing for us. When he’s confident, he’s making plays and early in the game shutting down half of the field.”
DevilsDigest: How close was Lucas to declaring for this year’s NFL draft?
CH: “He was pretty close. At one point, he was gone. Obviously, me and him had long talks about it, and he had outside factors weighing in on him. But all in all, I think he made the right decision. I was going to support him no matter what. But me being who I am, being stingy myself (not wanting talent to leave), I easily accepted him back.”
DevilsDigest: Safety Evan Fields was probably the most improved defensive player in 2019. Did he meet your 2020 expectations of him?
CH: “Yes, I always felt like he was a guy who was always going to be good. And he exceeded a lot of what I wanted from him, being our enforcer in the backend, forcing three fumbles. He played lights out. I think pretty much everybody in the secondary who played, played some of the best football of their life. Obviously, I wish we had 11 games to play with it, but now that I got all these dudes back, we will. Evan was a guy who took to the training and took to everything that me and coach Herm (Edwards) and coach Marvin (Lewis) taught, and he went out there and had his best year of football.”
DevilsDigest: Coming from Boise State and knowing what (ASU’s offensive coordinator) Zak Hill was going to run in the practice, you might as well nicknamed safety DeAndre Pierce ‘Cheat Code.’ But all jokes aside he was one of the best additions last year at any position for ASU…
CH: “Yeah, that was truly a blessing him coming over from Boise State because it helped us in so many ways. And I have a nickname for him too, I just call him ‘Einstein.’ He knows our defense inside and out and by the time Saturday comes he knows the offense we’re going against inside and out as well.”
DevilsDigest: I know it was a rough year for Jack Jones, someone with who you have a strong personal connection from both of your USC days. You must be elated that he is coming back in 2021?
CH: “Absolutely. We all know that he’s one of the more talented kids in the country when it comes to just complete talent and his ability to play the game of football. Now, I think this year has to be a true growing year for him. He’s taken the right steps to really grow as a person and as a young man, especially with the family aspect of him having a daughter. I think he’s really trying to take the right steps moving forward. Coming back to school was one of the first steps towards that. He just graduated, and we’re so happy about that. We celebrated that, and I just think moving forward, he has to take the right mindset and know that this (2021 season) is really a business trip.”
DevilsDigest: When Jones wasn’t on the field, Timarcus Davis was the other starter at cornerback. What is your assessment of his performance?
CH: “TD actually played really, really well. And I’m excited because now I know what he’s capable of doing. This gives me a solid rotation at corner where you don’t have to play Jack and Chase 90 reps, a game which wears down on their body. I think TD did a great job of coming in as a starter when the whole Jack-Jack situation went down, and he really proved himself and built up some trust when it comes to our staff.”
DevilsDigest: Jordan Clark was the starting nickel corner, and in a conference like the Pac-12 and the offenses they run, this means extended playing time. What did you see from him in 2020?
CH: “Jordan is an NFL kid (his father is former NFL player and All-Pro Ryan Clark). So, he has that NFL thinking when studying tape. He played well and was only a redshirt freshman. So, it was really his first time getting some action, and there were some growing pains with it. But I think he did a great job of what we asked him to do, and I think his future is bright because I look forward to him doing a lot more in terms of just knowing the game plan and playing faster.”
DevilsDigest: Clark was backed up by T Lee; how did it fair as a true freshman?
CH: “He came into it with a lot of confidence but didn't get a chance to really play a lot this season. I look for him in the spring to try to take advantage of any position that we put him in. And I think he will do that. He’s a feisty kid, he likes to compete, and I think he’ll have all the opportunities to compete once we start up again in the spring.”
DevilsDigest: What were your impressions of Kejuan Markham, the first safety off the bench this past season?
CH: “He probably has the most upside of any safety based on his athleticism, his range, and what he can do when the ball is in the air. His ball skills are phenomenal. He just has to work on knowing the entire defense and knowing exactly what his job is. And as a safety, you got to be able to know what everybody else’s job is as well because, in certain situations, you are the one communicating what everybody else should be doing. If he takes that next step, I think there is no cap on what he can be as a player, and his future is really bright here.”
DevilsDigest: What are your thoughts of his twin brother Keon Markham?
CH: “Keon came to us a little late. But I think he did a great job asking what we need of him. With that long body of his, I look forward to seeing what he can do with a full spring and full summer of just straight training. He was new to the position, and he was a little bit raw. But he’s a guy I look forward to working with and really getting my hands on this spring.”
DevilsDigest: Macen Williams and Ed Woods are two freshmen who really drew rave reviews last year. I assume you are pretty pleased with what they have shown since they arrived in Tempe…
CH: “Yes. Macen had some injuries, but he showed some feistiness and some versatility in being able to play corner and nickel. And Ed is just a competitor. He does not like losing, and nothing phases Ed. He’s a real, inner-city Oakland kid, and you can tell that mentality from the first time you meet him. He moves forward with reckless intent, and he worked his way into some playing time last year and did a great job when he was out there.”
DevilsDigest: Willie Harts had the shoulder injury in the preseason and was sidelined last year. Do you expect him to be back and healthy for spring practice?
CH: “I actually just had a call about him yesterday. I don’t know if he’ll be fully healthy yet, but I expect him to be able to contribute in some sort of way. He’s too smart of a kid not to. He’s a very, very fast player that knows exactly what they’re doing, and I Iike dudes like that. In every meeting that he’s been in during the year, he’s shown to be one of our smarter guys. So, I look forward to seeing what he can do as well.”
(Hawkins added that Harts is the only defensive back that may be out or limited for spring practice due to injury)
DevilsDigest: D.J. Taylor took advantage of every opportunity he was given but was it disappointing to you that he came here as a defensive back and now you lost him to the running back group?
CH: “No, Not really. Because I think his future is at running back. If you see him run the ball, everybody knows what he can do. Our job as coaches is to always put the kids in the best position to succeed. And I think he’ll have a great career at running back. If everybody knows what he can do with the ball, why waste him on defense when we can put the ball in his hands ten times a game (both as a running back and as a kick returner).”
DevilsDigest: What do the two 2021 class addition at DB, Tommi Hill, and RJ Regan bring to the table?
CH: “I’ll start out with Tommi; he brings the length and the size to play any position in the back end. And he’s very versatile. He did it all in high school. He can play corner, can play nickel if need be. He can play safety, as well. So, we’ll look to put him in a position to succeed early. And we will put him in whatever position he needs to play early, he’s that good of a player, and he brings a different mentality than a lot of other players. Coming from Florida, his family dropping him off here…you could tell that this all means a lot to him. He’s very serious about his craft, and I think he’ll definitely push these older dudes.
“RJ is a California kid who I’ve been watching for a long time. Actually, when I first met him, he was probably 5’9, and now he’s probably six-foot to six-foot and a half and rocked up. I’m very high on RJ. I look forward to seeing what he can do for us. He’s a fast kid. He played corner in probably the toughest conference in high school football, and he wasn’t on Bosco or Mater Dei or Servite High School. He was on the opposing team, and he made a lot of plays at that level. I expect him to come in and contribute early and keep making plays.”
DevilsDigest: What are the goals you are setting forth for your group to accomplish in spring practice?
CH: “I really want to see what these dudes can do. I only have two freshmen, Tommi Hill and RJ Regan, and they’ll have a lot of opportunities to show me exactly what they can do. I don’t know how many reps Jack and Chase will take being older and been doing this for their fifth year. So, I would like to see what the younger guys can do like Ed Woods, T Lee, Macen, and all those other guys. They all will have a good opportunity to show me exactly what they can further do before we get to Fall camp, and then in-season, we’re pretty much focused on the opponent.
“My job right now is to get the five best players (including nickel corner) on the field. I don’t know yet which dudes I feel should be playing in certain spots. We’ll figure that out in the spring. The expectations for us as a unit are really, really high this year, returning everybody and already being a very good secondary. We just got to take the next step at being the best. We know what we can do, and I think a lot of teams know what we can do. I need everybody in the country to realize how good this secondary can be.”
DevilsDigest: It’s no secret that you were brought in last year to the staff because of your recruiting prowess, and you did well with the 2021 class additions. I know expectations are high for the whole team and for you personally to do even better in the 2022 recruiting class. What is your message to those prospects that you are communicating with?
CH: “What I’m selling is the opportunity to play early just based off having a secondary with right now having four seniors in those starting spots. If you come to ASU, you get the opportunity to come in and compete early. As I said before, the best players play.
“We’re looking to have a great, actual football season this upcoming year in 2021, which could result in a great 2022 class. I won’t say any names, but I think I got some stuff up my sleeve right now.”
(Jesse Morrison contributed to this article)
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