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NORMAL — The most telling statistic connected to Brent Hawkins in 2004 was his number of injuries.

"Hip, hamstring, ankle, finger. He didn't have any major injuries, but he had a lot of nagging type stuff that obviously hampered his production," Illinois State coach Denver Johnson said. "He trained hard in the offseason and got himself healthy. And partly because he trained so hard, he was able to stay healthy through the season."

A rejuvenated Hawkins assembled a senior season brimming with healthy numbers. And for his efforts, the Redbirds' defensive end was named Gateway Conference Defensive Player of the Year.

"Considering the season I had last year, I didn't know what to expect," Hawkins said Tuesday. "I had a pretty good spring, and my coaches thought maybe it was a possibility. It was all attitude. I was just aggressive to the ball. I tried to play my best and things turned out well for me."

Quite well, actually. Hawkins set school records with 26 1/2 tackles for loss and 17 sacks. He ranked fourth on the team with 67 tackles, recovered two fumbles and forced an eye-popping seven fumbles.

"We felt very confident Hawk would get it," Johnson said of the Gateway award. "He put a lot of effort into this season, and it paid off for him in a big way."

Hawkins, along with linebacker teammate Cameron Siskowic, was selected to the 16-player Buck Buchanan Award watch list for the top defensive player in Division I-AA.

All this came after a junior season in which Hawkins managed just 22 tackles and three sacks in eight games.

Hawkins believes his technique improved "tremendously. (Assistant) Bill Teerlinck came in and he helped us out a lot. Coach (Chris) Patton became a better coach. Just by them getting better, I became better."

The 6-foot-3, 244-pound Hawkins became such a disrupting force, opposing offenses began to regularly double team him or simply run plays away from his side of the field.

"You could tell everybody had an awareness of Hawkins," Johnson said. "I thought he single handedly changed the game at Southern Illinois. That was the point I think people started saying you've got to take into account the Hawkins factor as you game plan for Illinois State."

Hawkins noticed the added attention two weeks earlier against Youngstown State.

"They were really coming at me," he said. "I just had to be more relentless. I didn't really change anything I did. I tried more moves, different combinations that might work."

Hawkins gives ISU the Gateway's top defensive player for the fourth straight season. Linebacker Boomer Grigsby took the honor in the three previous seasons.

Johnson believes Hawkins also will follow Grigsby into the NFL. Grigsby was a fifth round draft choice of the Kansas City Chiefs.

"I think we're going to have our second guy drafted in two years," said the ISU coach. "A lot of (NFL) people seem to like him. I'll just be shocked if he's not picked."

Hawkins, who started his college career at Purdue, plans to stay at ISU over Christmas break to continue working out with an eye on the NFL.

"I'm hearing things, but I just have to wait, train and see how things end up," he said. "A lot of people are saying given my size and speed, I would be more fit for a 3-4 defense as an outside linebacker/rush end."

As for the NFL and the Buchanan Award, Hawkins is in wait and see mode. But if the need arises to pursue a goal, Hawkins has proven quite capable.

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