The national media has certainly taken notice as Phil Steele's 2007 College Football Preview rates the Bears receiving corps as the best in the country, while Lindy's ranks them the nation's third-best. Athlon Sports lists the Bears' receiving corps as the best in the conference.
After an up-and-down sophomore campaign in 2005, Hawkins lived up to his junior college All-American billing last season, with 46 catches for 705 yards, averaging an impressive 15.3 yards per catch to go with five touchdowns. He had two strong games early in the season with a 9-catch, 125-yard effort against Minnesota, and a 6-catch, 128-yard game against Oregon State.
While a 10-win season, a Pac-10 co-championship, and a Holiday Bowl victory made 2006 one of Cal's most successful seasons in the past five decades, Hawkins, like many of his teammates, looks back at last season with mixed emotions.
"Last year, we probably did bad for the team we had," said Hawkins, a high school All-American who came to Berkeley via way of LSU and City College of San Francisco. "We think that we should blow every team out. That was how our team thought; offense, defense and special teams, but a few mistakes here and there hurt us."
Probably no game from last season annoyed Hawkins more than the Arizona game. While that game featured a confluence of oddities - from the dubious pass interference calls, to Jackson just barely stepping out of bounds, and touchdowns called back by penalty and replay - a change in any one event could have turned the game in Cal's favor. As it was, the Bears let a 17-3 halftime lead evaporate, as the offense stalled and the Wildcats rallied with three straight touchdowns to take a 24-17 lead early in the fourth quarter.
On the ensuing possession, the Bears found themselves with a 1st-and-10 from the Arizona 45. Longshore found Hawkins streaking up the left side of field, for what should have been the game-tying touchdown. After catching the ball, Hawkins lost his footing and fell at the one-yard-line. Cal was unable to score in the next three plays and had to settle for a field goal.
"That game still bothers me," said Hawkins. "I shouldn't have tripped. I felt like losing that game was my fault and it's been in my head for a long time."
Hawkins finished the season well, with touchdown catches in each of the last three games and was named honorable mention All-Pac 10.
Yet after two years here, Hawkins is well aware that the it's the work in spring and summer that pays off in the form of results in the fall.
"The spring's been great." said Hawkins. "[Having everybody back] means that we can work on the little things. Like, we can work on the slant and keep doing it so that it gets to my outside shoulder."
"When I first got here it was tough, trying to learn the offense because here they were so detailed on things. By the time I got to my senior year, we were working more on the technical aspects of running routes and extending our arms."
One reason why Cal's passing game flourished last year was the stability that Nate Longshore brought.
""It's good to have a guy like Nate back there," said the Stockton native. "He's a leader on on offense, he's a great player and a great competitior."
Longshore's noticed the work that Hawkins has put in earlier this year.
"He may be our most improved receiver coming out of the spring," said Longshore. "He's gotten bigger and stronger, and a lot more physical. He really understands the game now, and is coming into his full potential. You can see him pushing himself near the max every day."
One thing that catches peoples' eyes are Hawkins' daring runs after catches that keep defenses off-guard. It's been emblematic of his all-out effort that can be seen when he was taking direct snaps as quarterback at Edison High, playing briefly at defensive back while at City College of San Francisco, or livening up this spring's scrimmage by playing tailback and scoring a touchdown on an acrobatic dive.
While his runs were considerably riskier during his sophomore year, he's become more selective, something that comes with more experience. As the receiving corps collectively steps into the veteran role, there's an awareness that what they do has an impact on the next generation of Bear receivers.
"When the young guys look at me," said Hawkins, "I hope they'll see that I'm someone that works hard. I'm not the type of person to go around telling people what to do."
The trio of wide receivers has managed to complement each other well, something that can be difficult when you each player is an intense competitor who could each easily be number one receivers at different schools. Going into their third season, they've learned to use that competitiveness to push and help each other.
"DeSean and I always compete," said Hawkins. "We compete on everything from how well we play to what shoes we wear. And when we're out there, the defense has pick who they want to keep their eye on."
Hawkins also has fond words for teammate Robert Jordan, who's taken on a big role among the receivers.
"He's our leader," said Hawkins, who's majoring in social welfare. "He works hard on every play, and we can count on him to push the rest of us. If I'm feeling down, I can look at Rob and he'll tell me, 'c'mon, we're going to get through this.'"
One of the more controversial aspects of the 2006 season was the Cal's use of yellow jerseys. Whether the Bears were on the cutting edge of uniform fashion, trying to make it easier to see themselves at night, or just plain lost their minds is still a point of contention for many fans.
Hawkins liked the new look.
"I like the yellow jerseys, it's brings my skin tone out more," said Hawkins. "I'm more of a chocolate color, and it brings it out at night."
As soon as players started tacking up 2007 calendars in their apartment and dorm room walls, several players circled September 1st on their calendars. While winning at Neyland Stadium would be a tall order for any team, any year, last season's defeat cast a pallor over the season that wasn't really chased away until the decisive 45-10 defeat of Texas A&M at the Holiday Bowl.
Even with a new season, don't think for a moment that the team has forgotten Knoxville.
"I was watching the Tennessee game recently and I had to cut it off at halftime," said Hawkins. "We knew it would be loud, we couldn't let it affect us, but it threw us."
"This year it'll be our house, our crowd, and we'll make it plenty loud."
As has usually been the case, it's almost impossible to get any player to tell you what his individual goals are for the season. Players will gladly speak about team goals, and it usually starts and begins with winning each game they play. Regardless of where preseason predictions might place a team, no player for a top team will go into a season conceding that any game on the schedule is unwinnable.
Although last season might have been bittersweet, it didn't mean that Hawkins was quick to turn the page on it. At least not until January 8, 2007, the date of last season's BCS Championship game between Florida and Ohio State. While some players have difficulty watching games not directly affecting their teams, Hawkins was firmly in front a TV that evening.
"Definitely," said Hawkins. "You always want to be at the biggest game, and in the back of my mind, I felt like we should have been there. We know that if on every play, everybody gets on their guy, there's nobody that can stop us."
But as last season recedes in memory, giving way to onset of fall camp, where for now, there's cause for unlimited optimism and everyone is undefeated. Only a few teams are in a position where they return enough talent and experience that they'll have reason to maintain lofty expectations deep into the fall.
Hawkins believes the Bears will be one of those teams.
"I just want to help this team in any possible way. We have the chance to be a special team and do whatever we set our sights on, even be national champions."
NOTES...Fall camp starts on with a brief session on Monday afternoon followed by daily sessions through the end of the month with days off on August 24th and 26th. The first practice with full pads is scheduled for Saturday afternoon. Practices are closed to the public...Two of the key areas to look at during camp will be cornerback and defensive line. Robert Peele, Charles Amadi, and Darian Hagan will be among the corners competing for the starting position opposite Syd'Quan Thompson. Also there will be battles along the defensive line for starting positions and playing time. "The defensive line learning curve will be accelerated this fall," said coach Jeff Tedford...With kickoffs being moved back to the 30-yard line, there figure to be considerably more returns throughout college football this sason. According to the early fall depth chart, Justin Forsett, Lavelle Hawkins and James Montgomery will be vying for kickoff return duty. Desean Jackson will get some looks as well as possibly some of the incoming freshmen.
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