BROOKSVILLE — In the days leading up to tonight’s home playoff game against Gainesville, Hernando’s coaches brought in a fitting guest speaker — former Leopards star Ricky Feacher, a multiposition standout who made it to the NFL 25 years ago.
If Hernando (8-2) hopes to win its first playoff game since 1997, the Leopards will likely need a big performance from their new version of Feacher: jack-of-all-trades junior Tyrail Hawkins.
The 5-foot-11, 180-pound speedster has lined up at quarterback, receiver and running back. He’s a lockdown cornerback and returns punts and kickoffs.
“(I play) just wherever they need me, just do whatever they ask,” Hawkins said.
“He’s just an athlete,” coach John Palmer said.
Hawkins began last season as the team’s starting quarterback and led Hernando to three wins to open the year. But he sustained a high-ankle sprain in the fourth game and missed much of the remainder of the season.
When he returned for the last few contests, his position changed. He still took snaps at quarterback but evolved into a running back and receiver. Because of the knowledge he gained under center, Hawkins needed little time to adapt to his new roles.
“At quarterback, you’ve got to know where everyone else is at,” Hawkins said.
Injuries limited Hawkins to only 253 yards and two touchdowns last fall, but Georgia Southern saw enough to offer him a scholarship after his sophomore year.
Finally healthy, Hawkins has lived up to high expectations this season. He ranks eighth in Tampa Bay with 1,203 rushing yards. He has rushed for a team-best 15 touchdowns and caught three more to lift Hernando to its first district title in 14 years.
Hawkins also leads the Leopards with eight passes defensed, averages 23 yards per kickoff return and has snagged an interception.
“He’s an incredible athlete,” quarterback Cleve Pope said. “Pretty much the best athlete in the county right now.”
Hawkins is definitely one of the fastest. He placed fifth at last year’s district track meet in the 100 meters (11.10 seconds) and coaches have clocked him at 4.40 seconds in the 40-yard dash.
That game-breaking speed has helped Hawkins rack up six touchdowns of at least 40 yards.
“He’s faster than anybody I’ve ever seen before,” Pope said. “He knows how to turn it on. It’s like two different gears. While he’s running, you can’t really tell. Then when he gets through the hole, he kicks a gear in.”
Hawkins averages a team-best 11.8 yards per touch. Against River Ridge, he had five first-half touchdowns and finished with 425 all-purpose yards on only 12 touches.
He has also been instrumental in Hernando’s biggest games. He recorded four passes defensed in a pivotal 22-7 win over Class 6A, District 6 runnerup Sunlake. None of his teammates has more than four passes defensed all season.
And his 20-yard touchdown catch against Nature Coast helped knock off the rival Sharks and clinch Hernando’s city, county and district championships.
Hawkins also set the tone in the district opener. On the fourth play against Land O’Lakes, he took a pitch and sprinted 71 yards down the left sideline to begin a 28-7 victory.
“He just took off and kind of left everyone,” Palmer said.
Hawkins and Hernando will have their biggest test of the season tonight. The defense for Gainesville (8-2) has given up 11.3 points per game this year and includes Syracuse commit Tashon Whitehurst and USF-bound cornerback Chris Bivins.
A big game tonight could add to the accolades for the versatile Hawkins — and make a former player like Feacher proud.
Staff writer Matt Baker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.