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Hawkins has the preseason road map

Andrew Hawkins

Friday's 7:30 p.m. preseason opener at Paul Brown Stadium against the Jets (11:35 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) is on top of us and that means the search is on to find the next Andrew Hawkins.

You know.

The unknown rookie or unheralded veteran left for dead in the un-life on the outskirts of an NFL depth chart that live streams out of nowhere and makes it.

And sticks around for a year and maybe longer.

Is it rookie free agent middle linebacker Vontaze Burfict and his riches-to-rags-and-maybe-back-to riches story? Is it third-year running back Aaron Brown and his 45 obscure pro carries? Is it defensive end DeQuin Evans, whose rookie year last season ended injured on the practice squad?

Who knows?

Heck, Andrew Hawkins is hoping he's the next Andrew Hawkins as he suddenly embarks on a new career in his second NFL season.

Even though he's never returned a punt or a kick in a regular-season game, Hawkins is listed for both as No. 2 on the depth chart. And with No. 1 Brandon Tate also lining up No. 1 at the wide receiver opposite A.J. Green, Hawkins is going to have more returns than Macy's on Dec. 26.

"I feel good that the coaches have the confidence in me and they want to teach me and help me out," Hawkins said before practice Tuesday. "I figure it helps add years to my career. It's something I've really been working on and I really hope it shines through in the preseason."

It did last preseason. The preseason is why he's here. Hawkins is that guy that coaches talk about incessantly this time of year.

"When you cut to the chase, that's how Andrew Hawkins made our team last year," said special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons. "He made plays in preseason games. He made a ton of plays against the Jets as a gunner and he (ended up playing) in every game we played."

Two years ago Hawkins was helping coach the receivers at his alma mater of Toledo and sleeping on a friend's couch after a summer working as a caddy. Now he's coming off an offseason in Columbus where he became a father for the first time, worked out with NFL stars like Lance Moore, and did a lot of work in the community that included a raft of speaking engagements.

Last year's preseason turned into a pretty nice offseason. Andrew Austin Wyatt Hawkins is the cover of the NFL preseason program.

"He treats everyone equally, so to those that don't know him he seems like your average guy," says his brother, former Bengals cornerback Artrell Hawkins. "But for those that do know him, he's an extraordinary guy. He's very bright. He's always been an A and B student. He'll tell you how he taught himself to read.

"And even though he's 10 years younger than me, I consult him on pretty much everything. He's my go-to guy. He's my consigliore."

 The Jets are coming up the Jersey Shore Friday night, but it was last season's Jets game in the preseason, a total of 353 days ago, that actually was Hawkins's Bengals debut. He had a 15-yard catch, downed a punt on the Jets 1, had a special teams tackle, and chased down linebacker Brasheed Satele at the Bengals 4 to prevent an interception run-back for a touchdown.

"He made the team last year just in his energy and effort and how he practiced and did things," said head coach Marvin Lewis. "And every time he got an opportunity he took full advantage of it."

The 5-7, 180-pound Hawkins has supplied his own road map. He would seem to already have plenty on such a big plate. With Andre Caldwell gone and Jordan Shipley coming back slowly from ACL surgery, Hawkins is emerging as the No. 1 slot receiver. He's also a returning gunner on the punt cover team and a returner on the kick cover team after helping lead both to top 10 NFL finishes.

The only other Bengals receiver who has the speed to run away after the catch is the Pro Bowler Green, so you would think with all that Hawkins appears to be a good bet to make the roster without being a returner.

But he is taking no chances on a team that drafted two receivers and is only keeping six.

"The more you can do," said Hawkins, which doesn't surprise Artrell in the least.

Artrell Hawkins, who spent six of his nine seasons in NFL secondaries in Cincinnati, calls him Napoleon. As in "Little Man Complex."

"Oh yeah. He's got it. Little Napoleon right there," Artrell Hawkins says. "But that's what drives him. He's never complacent and I think that's why he's really embracing the returns."

This is how Andrew Hawkins thinks and why he's still around. He doesn't see returns curtailing his career because of hits. He sees them extending his career because it makes him more valuable.

"Nobody ever thought I'd have a career. So I've already had a longer career than people thought I'd have," he said.

Andrew says "It's all new," but while Simmons was turning Tate into the Bengals single-season punt return leader with extra work after every practice last season, Hawkins quietly joined them. He had returned kicks at Toledo and during his two seasons in Canada, but his last punt return before he cranked a 32-yarder last preseason came at Johnstown High School in Pennsylvania.

"Darrin is so good at all the intricacies of special teams. When I came here, I didn't even know how to catch a punt, to tell you the truth," Hawkins said. "Darrin has worked with me and he showed me things and I feel a lot more comfortable than I did this time last year. It's really incredible. I thank God for Darrin for the things he showed me so far."

Hawkins figures Simmons has kicked it or thrown it all at him. The kitchen sink came on a bounce.

"Kickoffs are a little easier; it's pretty much straight-lining," Hawkins said. "But with punts, you have to catch it a certain way. If  the punter is left-footed, right-footed. If the punt is end-over-end, a spiral, or if it carries over. A bunch of little things."

Simmons has seen enough from the guy as a core special-teamer for a season that he has no qualms putting Hawkins back there. Hawkins is going to have plenty of competition (Tate, Adam and Marvin Jones), but Simmons waves off the question of why he would think Hawkins can do it even though he never has on this level.

"What you see out here, that's all you have to go off right now. The way he handles himself and the reads he makes in practice," Simmons said. "And the fact I stayed after with him and Brandon Tate every practice last year and caught punts. I feel comfortable with the guy. He'd never done it. But both he and Brandon spent a ton of time.

"There was a lot of question about whether Brandon could do it. He had returned just a couple of punts in the NFL before he got here. So it's still a work in progress. It was a work in progress with (Tate), but I felt a little better with him than Andrew and that's not a knock against Andrew. I feel comfortable with a lot of those guys back there, but ultimately you've got to see it in a game. Who can make those decisions when its crunch time? Those are the ones that matter."

What it comes down to is what makes Hawkins such a unique player among those on the roster.

Speed. Quickness. Cuts.

And for a guy who didn't get drafted and got cut by the Rams after one practice, he now has steel-belted experience.

"It's not his first rodeo. He's played in this league before," Simmons said. "He's played gunner. He can run. That's what you're looking for. Guys that are tough, play with the technique that we want and can run, and I think Andrew can do all those things. Now it's a matter of doing it in games."

Which is exactly how Hawkins got here.

"Those guys show up every year," Simmons said. "They show up, they bubble to the top. Cream will rise to the top. There are going to be tough decisions, but they're easy decisions."

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