Jaylinn Hawkins never wanted to play defense, now he's a game-changer in the Falcons secondary

Five years ago, college coaches told Hawkins that he needed to switch to defense full-time; he was devastated.  

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Atlanta Falcons safety Jaylinn Hawkins #32 celebrates after a play during the first quarter against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida on Sunday, September 19, 2021. (Photo by Jeremy Reper/Atlanta Falcons)

Jaylinn Hawkins never wanted to be a defensive back.

When he began playing football at the age of five with the Garden Grove Falcons in Calif. – who wear the same uniform as the Atlanta Falcons – Hawkins played mostly running back, but also played other positions on both sides of the ball.

As he grew older, however, he fell in love with offense. He played wide receiver at Buena Park High School in Orange County, Calif., and was one of the best in the country. He was rated a four-star recruit by ESPN's high school rankings with offers from the University of Oregon, the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Washington, to name a few.

Hawkins studied receivers like Julio Jones, Randy Moss, Chad Johnson, even Calvin Ridley, the number one receiver in his 2015 high school class. Hawkins chose the University of California, Berkley for their famous up-tempo "Bear Raid" offense.

He was hoping to become the next great Cal wide receiver following in the footsteps of Desean Jackson, Keenan Allen and others, but his coaches had other plans. When Hawkins began practicing, defensive coordinator Art Kaufman and other coaches told him they would need him to play defense.

Hawkins figured the switch would be temporary and was willing to help the team, but after performing well at Safety, Kaufman told Hawkins he was not going back to the offense.

On the inside, Hawkins was devastated.

Since he began playing wide receiver, Hawkins had had dreamed about making the game-winning touchdown catch and making defensive backs look silly with sharp routes like the many receivers he looked up to. But he held it together on the outside, smiled, and told his coaches he would do anything they needed him to do.

"In my head, I'm like 'No way I don't wanna play defense,''' Hawkins said while shaking his head and placing his hands on his face. "I could play defense and everything like that because I'm physical and I like playing like that, but I'm like 'I do not wanna play defense. I did not wanna go to college to play defense like no.'"

Hawkins took the long walk back to his dorm on Cal's campus, wondering what to do next.

"I was just like dangggg," Hawkins said. "That burnt me out cause like I came to a offensive school to play offense, I didn't wanna play safety. I was good at running routes, good at Y.A.C [Yards After Catch], you know?"

When he got back to his room, he called his father and told him that he had to transfer. After talking, his father convinced Hawkins that his coaches had his best interest in mind and should give safety a try.

Five years later, Hawkins has become a game-changer for the Falcons defense. Hawkins shined at Cal, securing 156 tackles, ten interceptions, and three forced fumbles during his four seasons, and the Falcons selected him in the fourth round of the 2020 NFL draft. In his second season, he has emerged as a ball hawk in the secondary, showing off the hands that made him a four-star wide receiver, leading the team with two interceptions this year.

When Falcons defensive back Avery Williams was in high school at JSerra Catholic in Calif., Hawkins was somewhat of a superstar in the area. Williams and his teammates often talked about Hawkins and many of the other top receivers.

"We would go and watch J-Hawks receiver film – that's a big-time guy in so-cal," Williams said. "... He probably didn't know of me because I was small-time, I wasn't big-time."

So for Williams, seeing Hawkins excel at making big plays for the Falcons is no surprise for him.

"He's a big-time ballplayer," Williams said. "Just to see him compete at this level is not only expected but exciting to see."

Hawkins is number two on the depth chart behind veteran safety Erik Harris. Hawkins has leaned on Harris, who is in his sixth NFL season, for support and advice. In Harris' first year playing with Hawkins, he has been impressed by Hawkins' patience and the way he has embraced his role on the team. Instead of being frustrated by not being a starter, Hawkins has made the most out of his chances and is leading the team in interceptions because of it.

Harris even admitted that Hawkins has the best hands in the secondary.

"Him right now cause he has two picks, and I dropped two," Harris said with a laugh.

And Harris' advice to Hawkins is simple: stay level-headed.

"He's playing really good ball, but don't get too high on it," he said. "People feel like they need to start doing more and changing who they are and what they bring on game day, and they don't have to do that, continue to do what you do, trust in your process, and you'll continue to make plays."

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