Dan Hawkins is set to begin his adventure in Canadian football.
The 52-year-old starts his first camp as head coach of the Montreal Alouettes on Sunday without any previous experience in the 12-man game.
Then again, his predecessor Marc Trestman had never coached in the CFL and had never been a head coach at the pro level when he took over in 2008. That didn’t stop him from winning two Grey Cups.
“It’s football in the States and it’s football here,” Hawkins says. “But it’s a whole different brand of football.”
General manager Jim Popp and owner Bob Wetenhall took a risk when they opted for Hawkins, who spent the last two seasons as a college football analyst at ESPN after a long career as a head coach at the university level in the United States.
The folksy, enthusiastic Hawkins is the polar opposite of the soft-spoken, cerebral Trestman, who left in February to become head coach of the NFL’s Chicago Bears.
His coaching style promises to be a big change as well.
While Trestman also co-ordinated the offence and left the defence and special teams to others, Popp likens Hawkins to Don Matthews, who coached the Alouettes from 2002 to 2006, winning one Cup. Matthews tended to leave the nuts and bolts to his co-ordinators and assistants while overseeing the operation from above.
“Marc was a quiet guy, very reserved,” said Popp. “Dan’s very energetic.
“He has that rah-rah college side to him.”
Hawkins’ last coaching experience was not a resounding success. His record in five seasons at the University of Colorado, where he reportedly earned more than $1-million (U.S.) per season, was 19-39. Before that, however, he was 53-11 at Boise State and his career record is a solid 112-61-1.
He looks to be supported by a strong, almost completely new coaching staff, which includes experienced Doug Berry as senior adviser to the head coach.
There are solid co-ordinators with Mike Miller on offence and Noel Thorpe on defence.
A major change is they now have one man looking after special teams, co-ordinator Ray Rychelski. The kicking game had some awful moments last season, when special teams was one of several responsibilities for the departed Andy Bischoff.
Thorpe was hired even before Hawkins, and Popp hopes he sticks around.
The team had changed defensive co-ordinators in each of the previous four years. Popp said each had his own style, and wanted player changes to fit their game plan, causing confusion and a lot of turnover in personnel.
Defensive players were prominent on the team’s off-season shopping list, including linebacker Ejiro Kuale and cornerbacks Geoff Tisdale and Byron Parker.
On offence, they picked up Canadian running back Jerome Messam, veteran slotback Arland Bruce and quarterback Quinton Porter, giving 40-year-old Anthony Calvillo an experienced backup.
The camp at Bishop’s University in Sherbrooke, Que., will also be spiced up by the presence of some former NFL talent, including long-time Indianapolis Colts running back Domenic Rhodes, as well as receivers David Clowny and Wallace Wright.
The Alouettes already have an impressive receiving corps with Jamel Richardson, S.J. Green and Brandon London.
Popp said he’s anxious to see how his two first-round draft picks work out, linebacker Mike Edem and running back Steven Lumbala, selected third and fifth overall respectively from the Calgary Dinos.
“Edem’s really made an impression,” he said.
He also has high hopes that Kuale will fit well into Thorpe’s defence.
“I like aggressive, physical players and he brings that to the table,” said Popp.
The Alouettes had nightmares at running back in 2012 after starter Brandon Whitaker’s season ended in midseason with a knee injury. Vic Anderson filled in nicely until he got hurt, then Chris Jennings took over.
Whitaker re-signed with the Alouettes on Thursday.
Another running back is Noel Devine, a prime candidate to take over kick returning duties from the released Trent Guy.
“Can he have a breakout year?” Popp asked about the speedy Devine.
He’s also anxious to see how veteran defensive end John Bowman does with Thorpe going back to a four-man line after the teamed used a 3-4 setup last season.
“We’ll have a guy like Bowman in a system that benefits him more,” said Popp. “We’ll see if he has his best year.”
Of course, the Alouettes’ fortunes sit mainly on Calvillo’s shoulders.
The CFL’s all-time passing leader will turn 41 on Aug. 23. He is coming off surgery on a torn labrum in his left (non-throwing) shoulder, and won’t take as many snaps as usual in camp.
That’s why it was important to sign Porter from Hamilton. Last year’s back-up Adrian McPherson is gone, while third-stringer Josh Neiswander is back.
One area that never seems to change in Montreal is a solid, experienced offensive line of centre Luc Brodeur-Jourdain between guards Scott Flory and Andrew Woodruff and tackles Josh Bourke and Jeff Perrett.
The Alouettes did not make it to the Grey Cup game the past two seasons despite posting winning regular season records. They were 11-7 in 2012, but were beaten at home by eventual champion Toronto in the East Division final.
“We all felt we were good enough to win those games,” said Popp. “We had a lot of injuries, but we also turned the ball over four times in one half and that’s not how you get there.
“Now coach Trestman is gone and they’ll have the embrace Dan, but they still know they’re a special team with a chance to win a championship.”