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Freshman Hawkins catching on at OSU

CORVALLIS – The Oregon State Beavers break the huddle, and freshman receiver Xavier Hawkins trots to his spot on the outside.

Following close behind is Victor Bolden. Once Hawkins is set, Bolden taps Hawkins on the shoulder and quietly asks what route Hawkins is supposed to run.

"If I get it right, then he'll just let me go," Hawkins said.

That's the relationship budding between "veteran" — Bolden is just a sophomore, after all — and rookie. Bolden has been Hawkins' shadow, of sorts, in recent days, as the freshman has been thrust into first-team reps while OSU's other two flankers, Bolden (hamstring) and Rahmel Dockery (head), recover from injury.

And with the increased opportunity, Hawkins may be challenging for immediate playing time come fall.

"He's talented and fast," Beavers coach Mike Riley said, "and he appears to be unfazed by having just a heap of stuff thrown on top of him. He's taking way more turns than anybody else, and is just hanging in there like crazy. I really, really like him."

Hawkins — nicknamed "X' — hails from football-crazed Knoxville, Tennessee, but never really cheered for the hometown Volunteers. Instead, he idolized former West Virginia standout and current St. Louis Ram Tavon Austin, a multi-dimensional weapon with a smaller build that reminded Hawkins of, well, himself.

That means the 5-foot-8, 165-pound Hawkins reminded Beavers coaches of their own versatile superstar, Brandin Cooks. Hawkins excelled in the fly-sweep game. He had the quickness to turn short routes into bundles of yards after the catch. He had the vertical speed to haul in the deep ball. As a senior, he racked up 2,329 all-purpose yards for 37 touchdowns for a Fulton High team that won its second consecutive Class 4A state championship.

Wide receivers coach Brent Brennan just wanted to make sure Hawkins could actually catch the football, sometimes a difficult task for high-school speedsters. So he traveled East twice to watch Hawkins play. Satisfied with Hawkins' hands, Brennan presented the largely unheralded, two-star prospect with his only major scholarship offer.

"He was just really dynamic with the ball in his hands," Brennan said.

So far, Hawkins has endured a steep learning curve. The overall speed of each play is much faster. The inventory of offense in the Beavers' pro-style playbook is vast. Naturally, Hawkins unexpectedly getting plopped into live 11-on-11 reps against the Beavers' starting defense over the past five practices has yielded mixed results.

Saturday's inconsistencies forced the Beavers to temporarily move Hunter Jarmon to flanker. Monday's workout was perhaps even worse for Hawkins, Brennan said.

But by Tuesday, Hawkins was hauling in multiple catches during the team period. He made a diving catch on a deep ball. Later, he slid and snagged a reception near the sideline, prompting an onlooker to yell, "What a catch!" and Brennan to give him a pat on the helmet. On the next play, Hawkins lined up on the opposite side of the field and made the catch on an out route.

Hawkins also dropped an easy inside screen pass, showing he is far from polished.

"He's kind of starting to figure it out," Brennan said. "Although, I thought he was figuring it out (before), and he was awful (Monday) morning. But then he was good (Tuesday).

"There's those ups and downs with freshmen that drive you absolutely nuts."

Brennan estimates Hawkins is still a couple days away from truly digesting the playbook and speed of practice. Once that happens, the coach expects Hawkins' comfort level and confidence to bloom.

Until then, Bolden will keep shadowing the rookie to the line of scrimmage. Bolden has already seen growth in a few days and keeps encouraging Hawkins not to second-guess himself on the field. Brennan finds the pairing beneficial for Bolden, too, because teaching also forces one to learn the task even better.

Perhaps by late August, Hawkins will be able to spell Bolden at that flanker spot.

"I didn't expect to get that many reps," Hawkins said. "... Now, I'm kind of getting a little more used to it, all the reps I'm getting, so I'm just trying to take advantage of that ...

"It means a lot, just giving me a shot. I just have to take it and play hard."