UNITY TWP, Pa. — Jerald Hawkins’ first three years in the NFL haven’t exactly gone according to plan.
Hawkins, a fourth-round, project pick out of LSU in 2016, spent two of his first three seasons on the Steelers’ reserve/injured list. A torn labrum in his first preseason cost him his entire rookie year, and after showing progression under Mike Munchak’s tutelage in 2017, the 6-foot-6 tackle suffered a torn quad in 2018 OTAs that placed him on the IR. Again.
“It halted (the progression) for a good minute,” Hawkins said on Tuesday. “All the older guys, they seen it, too, before I got hurt. I was making that jump, that leap.”
Hawkins was even deemed a potential Chris Hubbard-like swing tackle whom the Steelers could plug in and play at a moment’s notice when injuries to starters arose. But now, the series of setbacks coupled with increased competition within a deep offensive line unit, Hawkins – entering the final year of his rookie deal – could be left off the team’s 53-man roster in a few weeks.
“Things happen, man,” he said. “God has his own timing.”
Hawkins weathered a rough start to training camp in his first football action in 19 months, where he was noticeably uncomfortable while struggling to protect the edge against the likes of T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree and Ola Adeniyi in 1-on-1s. But again, a seamless return after nearly two years out of pads shouldn’t have been expected in his particular situation.
“These days are hard,” Hawkins said. “You’re going against guys, from Cam [Heyward] to Bud and Ola — the whole defense. Everybody’s great. They help me challenge myself every day because they know what I’m coming off of, and they calling me like, ‘OK Hawk, I’m working on your post, I’m working on your bull, I’m working on your anchor.’ I just love how those guys keep me focused and stable.”
The transition back into football shape has been physically demanding, Hawkins said, but the mental and emotional obstacles were roadblocks he’s been forced to overcome, as well. Hawkins comes from a military family with two older brothers in the Army. Both relayed a mantra for Hawkins to abide by as he continues to claw his way back.
‘Embrace the suck.’
“That’s something I’ve learned,” Hawkins told me. “They’ve reminded me to always embrace the suck. You’re going to have some bad times and you just have to keep pushing. It’s only temporary. Only you can make yourself better. When you have obstacles, you’ve got to keep pushing.”
Hawkins has made small steps in recent days, enough to catch the eye of Craig Wolfley late last week. But it might not be enough. This season, depth is perhaps the the greatest strength of the Steelers’ offensive line. Matt Feiler appears to have the starting right tackle position locked up, with 2018 third-round pick Chukwuma Okorafor serving as the primary backup at both tackle spots during camp. When veteran Ramon Foster has been rested during camp, the Steelers moved Feiler inside to left guard and subbed in Okorafor at first-team right tackle – giving the impression that Hawkins is currently on the outside looking in at a roster spot.
A solid performance during the preseason could change that, though. With four games coming up, the first of which on Friday night against Tampa Bay, the cards are in Hawkins’ hands to change his fortune.
“It’s always motivation, especially when you know what you’re capable of and you know what you have,” Hawkins said. “You’ve just have to keep moving forward and show everybody else that you’re capable of doing things. Keeping it consistent. That’s the main key. You can flash it here and there, but now it’s a part of playing a consistent role. If I keep doing that, I’ll feel pretty good about it.”