Several true freshmen have had an immediate impact on the LSU football team in recent seasons.
Jerald Hawkins wasn’t one of them.
But just because the Tigers have been making a habit of recruiting Southeastern Conference-ready players and putting them to work right away, it doesn’t mean they don’t still have room for and need of players who still can have an impact if they bide their time and use it well.
In fact for every impact freshman — such as Jalen Mills, Vadal Alexander, Jeremy Hill or Tyrann Mathieu — who becomes a significant contributor right away, there’s more than one recruit who follows the more traditional route to the field, redshirting their first season.
Case in point is Hawkins, who could be a spokesperson for redshirting. He wasn’t ready to contribute last season even when the offensive line lost both starting tackles — Chris Faulk and Alex Hurst — and starting right guard Josh Williford along the way.
But when LSU begins its season against TCU on Saturday, Hawkins will be the starting right tackle after demonstrating during preseason camp that he might be the most improved player on the team.
“I just took it as a challenge to get better,” Hawkins said of his reaction to learning he wouldn’t play last season. “I just wanted to prove that next year I would be ready.”
He has done just that as coach Les Miles has talked about Hawkins’ dramatic improvement, especially in terms of his technique.
“When he first got here and you looked at his stances, you thought, ‘My gosh, this guy is going to take a lot of work,’” Miles said. “But he gradually lowered his base, and his technique became more sound.
“He was always quick and had long arms, and he always had some natural ability. Now he’s really coming with his technical ability. It just goes to show you what age and maturity do.”
Hawkins, 6-foot-6, 301 pounds, said he always had good footwork and lateral movement thanks to the variety of sports he played at West St. Mary High School. He played on the offensive and defensive lines, was a baseball pitcher with a fastball that topped out at 92 miles per hour (and also played third base and first base), played basketball and competed in the shot put.
“I always wanted to be great at everything and show everybody,” he said.
Despite all that preparation, Hawkins wasn’t ready last season.
When attrition started to hit the line, the Tigers turned first to senior Josh Dworaczyk to replace Faulk at left tackle. The departure of Hurst at right tackle brought another freshman, Alexander, into the lineup at right tackle, and redshirt freshman Trai Turner slid into the right guard spot to replace Williford.
“I had to work on staying low,” Hawkins said. “Most of the time, I was too high. It was pretty challenging. But after a while, I started to get comfortable.
“It’s coming naturally now, and I’m seeing more and reading defenses better.”
Alexander and Turner proved to be a solid right side last season, but Hawkins’ improvement allowed the Tigers to move Alexander to left guard when Williford was lost indefinitely to a concussion in preseason camp.
The move of Alexander had been contemplated before Williford’s injury because of a desire to get Hawkins on the field.
Hawkins said he used the redshirt season to learn from his “elders,” such as Turner, Dworaczyk and La’el Collins, who started at left guard last season and will start at left tackle this season.
He said Turner told him to use his redshirt year as a learning experience, as Turner had done.
“I focused on learning the plays and seeing how the game flowed,” Hawkins said, adding that he’d pick linemen’s brains when they came to the sideline during games, asking which defensive lineman was best and what was his favorite technique.
Hawkins isn’t the only Tiger who watched as a freshman last season and seems ready to see the field this season.
Wide receiver Travin Dural, cornerback Derrick Raymond and linebacker Lorenzo Phillips are in position to contribute.
Raymond said he welcomed the redshirt because he was inexperienced when he arrived at LSU.
After changing high schools multiple times, he wasn’t eligible to play sports until his junior year at East Jefferson.
He said he ran track as a junior “to get faster for football my senior year.” After one season as a cornerback, he arrived at LSU.
“I was a bit raw, so I understood that redshirting was the best thing for me,” Raymond said.
“I had time to develop and learn, so that redshirt year was a big year to develop.”
Phillips had the best of both worlds, playing enough in the first three games last season to get his feet wet but not playing enough to lose his redshirt.
“I thought once you set foot on the field that your redshirt is cut, but having that extra year isn’t bad for me,” Phillips said. “I’m happy I have that extra year and some extra time to grow.”
Dural would not have been one of the redshirts had he not suffered a season-ending knee injury early in preseason camp last year.
“When it first happened, I was kind of depressed,” Dural said. “I took me awhile to see that I had more time for school and I could really study the plays and learn the offense. About a month into school, I realized it was a blessing and I was able to see it from a different perspective.”
Dural has added nearly 20 pounds since his arrival and now carries 192 pounds on his 6-2 frame.
Colby Delahoussaye and Trent Domingue redshirted last season, and now Delahoussaye is the starting place-kicker and Domingue may get a chance to try a few kicks.
Miles also pointed to middle linebacker D.J. Welter and end Jordan Allen as examples of players whose patience paid off.
Both redshirted when they arrived in 2010 and are now first-time starters as juniors.
“Certain guys improve so much while they’re in the program,” Miles said. “They get in the weight room, and they get stronger and they get faster. Then they’re no longer that guy who is just OK.”