CONWAY — Sometimes the circumstances of how one gets to a certain point or place help an individual appreciate being there that much more, and that indeed seems to be the case for Coastal Carolina junior cornerback LaDarius Hawthorne.
His college football career could have gone much smoother from the start, but he doesn’t look back on the twists and turns that led him here with any regret.
Especially not now. Especially not as he prepares to play a prominent role in one of the biggest moments in program history on Saturday with the Chanticleers visiting No. 3-ranked Old Dominion for a NCAA FCS playoffs second-round clash.
“Pretty much, I’ve been looking at everything as a blessing,” Hawthorne said, chuckling a bit as he reflected back on the past few years.
After a solid varsity career at Ware Shoals High School in western South Carolina, Hawthorne says he was receiving interest from some FCS-level programs, led by tradition-rich Georgia Southern. The only obstacle – or so he thought at the time – was his ACT score, and so he worked to make sure that would not be a factor.
“[Georgia Southern] had called me and told me, ‘If you get your ACT test up, we’re going to offer you a scholarship. It’s between you and this guy from Florida,’ ” Hawthorne recalled. “So I ended up getting my ACT score [up], and they called me a couple weeks before National Signing Day and told me they were going to sign me. So I kind of got hyped about that.
“[But] I never got the phone call. I never got the visit from them. So I was just sitting around, waiting.”
National Signing Day came and passed and with no other FCS schools showing interest anymore, Hawthorne started thinking he might head to Division II Newberry College. A few weeks later, though, then-CCU assistant coach Drew Watson happened to notice him while watching tape of one of Hawthorne’s high school teammates.
“I remember some random day at lunch my senior year, one of my high school coaches tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘Somebody’s here to see you.’ [Watson] told me, ‘I told you I was coming back to get you, so do you want to be a Chanticleer?’ ” Hawthorne said, telling the story.
The answer was yes, even though he’d be coming to Coastal as a walk-on, but that was only the start.
Through his first thee years on campus – including a redshirt season – Hawthorne had more ACL tears (one) than interceptions (none), while tallying just nine total tackles in 16 games playing behind former CCU standout Josh Norman and a host of other more experienced cornerbacks. His most significant playing time had come on special teams, and he knew heading into his junior season this fall that he was likely stuck behind two senior corners on the depth chart.
But by virtue of the Chants’ offseason coaching change, everybody suddenly had a fresh start.
“That didn’t matter,” CCU coach Joe Moglia said of Hawthorne’s limited experience in recent years. “We said when we were going into the spring, it didn’t matter where you were, everybody got equal work. So based on that, we had a very, very easy opportunity to objectively evaluate everybody. We didn’t care who had played.”
And Hawthorne recognized his opportunity.
“I always had the thought in my head, ‘When Josh is gone, what are we going to be? What is our identity going to be? We’ll have two seniors who are corners, and I’m going to be a junior coming up who really hasn’t had much experience,’ ” he said. “So I kind of worked hard over the summer, in the weight room and off the field just doing extra work. I was still kind of playing behind the two seniors, and I was telling myself, ‘You’ve got to come out of that role and kind of step up to the plate and accept the challenge that maybe you could be the starter.’ ”
That’s where he finds himself this week as the Chants (8-4) prepare to face the Monarchs (10-1) and their heralded sophomore quarterback Taylor Heinicke, who leads all FCS players in total offense (412.27 yards per game) and passing (378 yards per game).
Hawthorne’s emergence over the course of this season started gradual, but he replaced senior Tre Henderson as one of the team’s primary corners midway through the season and enters this week ranked third on the team with 59 total tackles and second with three interceptions and four pass break-ups.
Meanwhile, the Chants’ secondary – which Moglia himself said was “porous” earlier in the season – has taken steps in the right direction over the course of the season.
“He’s very reliable. He’s very competitive. You can always depend on LaDarius to do what you’re coaching him to do,” CCU defensive coordinator Clayton Carlin said. “That’s what you need at any position, particularly corner because you can’t hide those guys. ... You know what you’re going to get with LaDarius.”
And the Chants know what they’re going to get from Old Dominion on Saturday – a pass-heavy offensive attack that ranks first nationally with 538.27 yards per game and second in scoring at 44.45 points per game.
Coastal will no doubt need big games from senior cornerback Dontavais Johnson and Hawthorne, and the junior from Ware Shoals said he will be “amped and ready to go” for the biggest test he’s faced all season.
This was part of the dream of landing at a nationally-competitive FCS program, and although Coastal wasn’t the one he initially expected to wind up at, he says walking on with the Chants has been “the best decision I ever made.”
As for the challenge that awaits Saturday against the favored Monarchs and their prolific passing attack, well, he’s used to this dynamic by now.
“Basically,” Hawthorne said, “I’ve been trying to prove myself since I’ve been here.”
Contact RYAN YOUNG at 626-0318, or follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/RyanYoungTSN.