Courtney Hawkins: 'No better place' than MSU to make college coaching debut
There isn’t much Courtney Hawkins hadn’t accomplished on the football field.
He was an All-Big Ten wide receiver at Michigan State, won a Big Ten championship under coach George Perles and his name still dots the program’s record books. After a nine-year career in the NFL, Hawkins returned to his hometown of Flint and led his alma mater, Beecher High, as its football coach and athletic director for 14 years.
There was plenty of success there, too, as the Buccaneers reached the state playoffs 12 times and, in 2018, Hawkins was named the Athletic Director of the Year.
He’d put together one heck of a resume, but there was still one thing he needed to check off his career list.
Hawkins wanted to coach college football.
“I'd say over the last six, seven years, I've expressed interest in wanting to go to college,” Hawkins said during a conference call on Wednesday. “I was in high school for 14 years and I said before I hung up my coaching whistle this is something that was on my bucket list. And I always thought no better place to do it than to come back home.”
Fortunately for Hawkins, that’s exactly how things played out.
After Mark Dantonio stepped down in early February as the Spartans’ coach, Mel Tucker took over a little more than a week later. By the middle of the month, Hawkins was on the phone with Tucker.
“I had been praying about it and I got a great call on Feb. 14,” Hawkins said. “I’ll never forget it. It was actually Valentine's Day and Coach Tucker called me that morning. It was a very brief conversation and here I am.”
That day, Hawkins agreed to be Michigan State’s wide receivers coach, returning to East Lansing to lead the same group that he starred in during his time with the Spartans.
“Just to have the opportunity to come back to my alma mater and run out tunnel once again in competition, man,” Hawkins said. “It’s something that just thinking about it and talking about it, man, it gives me goosebumps, so I am just super grateful.
“I’m really grateful to Coach Tucker for giving me this opportunity at Michigan State University. A lot of people couldn’t write the story, man.”
Hawkins is right. It sure does make for a good story as he returns to coach at Michigan State.
He is still top 10 in program history in receptions and receiving yards while his 1,080 yards in 1989 is eighth-best in MSU history. During that season, Hawkins had 197 yards in a victory over Minnesota and 193 when the Spartans beat Purdue.
Those numbers, though, won’t matter once the Spartans are able to actually get back on the field. With its two top receivers — Darrell Stewart and Cody White — off to the NFL, Michigan State will have its share of holes to fill.
The Spartans aren’t lacking in talent at that spot, though most of it is young without a lot of snaps. Jalen Nailor has fought injuries but seems primed for a breakout while Tre Mosley was impressive as a freshman the second half of last season.
“He did some things well, but he was he was young and it showed,” Hawkins said of Mosley. “This year we will concentrate on getting the game to slow down for him, and the way to get the game to slow down is by understanding the offense and understanding the defense better, knowing your playbook inside and out. … I think the sky's the limit for Tre. He’s a hard worker, he listens, he asks really good questions. So, I think he wants to be great.
“And Jalen has a huge upside, also. His nickname is ‘Speedy,’ so anybody with a nickname ‘Speedy’ should be able to run and we're looking to be able to stretch the field. So just like Tre, we’ve got some young receivers in the room, so we're gonna focus on fundamentals, fundamentals, fundamentals. We’ll harp on that and just being mentally and physically tough and getting in the best shape of their lives.”
Guys like C.J. Hayes and Laress Nelson have also been in the program for several years but have fought injuries. They’ll have a chance to put it all together under Hawkins, who also pointed out the added dimension of Jayden Reed, who sat out last season after transferring from Western Michigan, where he was freshman All-American in 2018.
“Jayden is hungry,” Hawkins said. “He's been working hard in the weight room, conditioning wise, getting his body and his mind right. I expect him to have a great year. He’s a quick kid. He runs well, has a nice burst, nice top-end speed. … I think Jayden is gonna be a huge surprise. The kid can play.”
The Spartans will surely be looking for their share of playmakers as coordinator Jay Johnson hopes to breathe some life into an offense that has had trouble scoring over the past four seasons.
There will be a new quarterback playing behind what should be an improved offensive line. There’s talent in the backfield with Elijah Collins back for his sophomore season, meaning the Spartans will need some players to step up in the passing game.
Hawkins believes there are pieces in place to do just that.
“This group is gonna surprise people,” he said. “We're gonna do some things. We're gonna work hard and create separation, give a quarterback the targets, and go out and make plays. That's what we're supposed to do.”
And experienced at this level or not, Hawkins could be just the guy to get the Michigan State receivers to play to that level.
“I wanted another challenge,” Hawkins said. “I had a great time doing what I was doing, but it was just something that was burning inside that I needed to do.
“I'm super competitive. I'm not gonna let you win. We sit down and play marbles or darts or shoot pool, I’m gonna play like my life depended on it. It’s just kind of how I'm wired. So, I’m gonna bring that same energy, same passion to the receiver position and to the coaching staff.”