The senior linebacker is one of the best in the country at his position.
COLUMBUS (AP) -- A.J. Hawk's most jarring hit might have been when he sacked the recruiting experts.
Considered just another prospect when he signed with Ohio State, he took a back seat to more heralded classmates. Since then, he has proven that it's hard to measure potential with a stopwatch and high school stats.
"It's just some people come in under the radar," said Hawk, a soft-spoken and self-effacing senior linebacker. "There's so many things out there now that they [recruiting experts] can't get everything right, obviously. I could easily have come in and been a bust, or moved to fullback and never gotten to play or anything."
He's far too charitable, however. The reality is Hawk was never close to being a bust. He played a lot as a freshman and is in his third year as a starter. A year ago, he was a first-team All-American and was selected first-team All-Big Ten for the second year in a row.
Ohio State coach Jim Tressel said there is a lot to like about Hawk from the start.
"He's smart," said Tressel. "He doesn't panic. He has an awareness for the whole field. He can tell by how you line up and who's in the game what may be coming. He's tough. He never misses a practice snap. You have to drag him off the field in games."
The 6-foot-1, 240-pound Hawk came to Ohio State in a recruiting class that included everybody's No. 1 pick as the top prep linebacker in the country, Mike D'Andrea. D'Andrea, a hulking 6-3, 248-pounder, was acclaimed as the best in the land by almost every publication.
But shoulder and knee injuries have gutted D'Andrea's once promising career, limiting him to 44 tackles in his three active seasons with the Buckeyes. That's just about 100 fewer than Hawk had in 2004 alone. D'Andrea enters the 2005 season as a player with almost limitless ability -- if only he could stay on the field.
While D'Andrea's top collegiate game is five tackles, Hawk has exceeded that figure 22 times in the last two years alone.
As the accolades have piled up for Hawk, he has never forgotten what an amazing trip his college years have been.
"Yeah, my whole career here has been unbelievable," he said. "I came into a great situation, to get to win a national championship my freshman year. I don't even think I can realize how special it is. But I'm starting to. I realize how much fun I have playing here and maybe 20 years down the road I really am going to realize how special it was to be here."
Hawk made himself a player because of his dedication, something his teammates speak of in hushed terms.
"He had a cut on his forehead two years ago during preseason camp," said roommate Nick Mangold, a starting offensive lineman. "The doctor said he needed to slow down for a day or two. They had to hide his helmet so he wouldn't try to go out there."
Hawk could have easily left school last spring and gone in the first round or two of the NFL draft.
"I know A.J. and he wanted to play [at Ohio State] this year," said fellow senior linebacker Anthony Schlegel. "He didn't think anything about it. We just have a great time playing together. That's what your senior year's all about: being with your teammates, being with your brothers, going on the field and having fun."
Always the underdog
Hawk likes being with his brothers in Ohio State uniforms because it is almost like being back home in Centerville, where he was badgered by older brothers, Matt, 27, and Ryan, 24. His competitive nature was stoked by his roughhousing brothers who were never afraid to challenge him.
"I kind of grew up my whole life as an underdog," A.J. said. "I had two older brothers who would beat on me and then let me know I wasn't much compared to them. And it's still like that. Guys like that keep you humble, being around them every day and realizing I'm still the little brother to them."
Hawk can become only the fifth player to record 400 career tackles at Ohio State, joining Marcus Marek, Tom Cousineau, Chris Spielman and Steve Tovar.
Asked what he likes best about Hawk, Tressel said, "His humility. You love being around people who are grounded. Truly, the team is the most important thing to him. He understands without his teammates he wouldn't be here."