Cal football hopes for early contributions from Jaylinn Hawkins

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It’s not easy to find an athlete as talented as the one Cal football found in incoming freshman Jaylinn Hawkins, who has been projected as a player who could be successful on both sides of the ball, even at the Division I level. But all of the Bears will ask how Hawkins, who will play cornerback for now, is to help bolster a passing defense that ranked as one of the worst in the nation last season.

At 6-foot-1 and 195 pounds, Hawkins packs the ideal frame to play cornerback in today’s football landscape, where size is a big emphasis for defensive backs. Along with that, he has the instincts to perform well at the college level. A lot of this comes from the fact that he starred at wide receiver in high school, and it’s conceivable that if the Bears had more of a need at the position, Hawkins would be vying to get on the field and catch Jared Goff’s passes.

Instead, Hawkins will look to strengthen a Cal defensive backfield that needed a lot of help last year. While the team seems to be more confident about the unit heading into next season because of the added depth it will have available, the Bears could use a talent like Hawkins to fill the many holes they left open last year.

Cal’s defense placed last in the nation in passing yards allowed per game last year with 367.2, so the four-star recruit, according to Rivals.com, could get a chance to contribute early.

“I’ve got to go work hard in the fall camp, get in my playbook, study,” Hawkins said when asked about what he’ll need to work on before he the season starts in September. “I’ve just to go hard and do me, and I’ll be fine.”

In terms of learning the playbook, Hawkins shouldn’t have too much trouble adjusting to defensive coordinator Art Kaufman’s system, as it won’t have the newcomer doing much he isn’t used to. Cal’s scheme has cornerbacks doing things similar to what Hawkins had to do in high school, in terms of being able to play in various zone schemes while also using man defense at points. Playing man will mean the Bears will put Hawkins on the field and expect him to shadow and neutralize opposing receivers.

“I played receiver, so I also know a receiver’s techniques, and I know what he’s kind of going to do in the middle of a route,” Hawkins said. “I have good receiver IQ, so that helps me out, and I can go up and get the ball.”

As a former receiver, Hawkins will be one of the corners most adept at going up and picking balls off when they are thrown his way. He showcased this ability with his 11 interceptions in high school. Other than his hands and his ability to decipher what receivers are thinking, Hawkins also brings some other crucial skills that will factor into his success at the cornerback position.

He has good hips, which he tries to model after Darrelle Revis. Hawkins’ hips and quickness leave him the ability to keep up with opposing receivers on their quicker-developing routes, while the speed-size combination means he has the tools to keep up with just about any receiver on downfield throws. With these physical attributes, the only real questions surrounding Hawkins is how consistent he can be and how soon he’ll be able to prove himself a worthy contributor for Cal in the secondary. Hawkins also pairs an impressive mental acuity for the game with his other skills, and he seems to know what approach to embrace if he wants to become a successful defensive player.

“Short-term memory is very important because in the game of football, you’re always going to make mistakes — you’re never perfect,” Hawkins said. “So when you make that mistake, you’ve got to let it go. You can’t just carry it with you.”

Hooman Yazdanian is the sports editor. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @hoomanyazdanian.