The Packers have sky-high expectations heading into the season, and for good reason. The team returns nearly all their key components from their Super Bowl run while also returning several big-name players from the injured reserve.
I sat down with Hawk on Tuesday for a one-on-one interview, in which we discussed his "Beat the Heat" collaboration with the NFL and Gatorade, and several other topics pertaining to the 2011 season.
Here's a run down on some of the things we discussed.
Question: You've been around six years, so what are some of the toughest offenses you guys face or will face?
Hawk's Answer: "I wish I had our schedule in front of me. But in the NFL, what I've definitely learned going into my sixth year is that you can't take anyone lightly. But I've played against all the great offenses and quarterbacks. We played against Tom Brady and the Patriots last year and our third preseason game we play the Colts. I'm not sure if Peyton [Manning] is going to play or not. All I ever think about is the next offense we're facing. That's who we have to prepare for and who we have to stop, because regardless of who they are or what their record is, they can come out and beat you."
Question: What about individually? Is there an offensive lineman you can think of that stands out to you?
Hawk's Answer: "There's been a lot of great guys I've had to face. I'm sure one guy everyone knows about is my old college roommate—Nick Mangold, the center of the New York Jets. He's one of the best lineman I've faced. We played them last year up in New York and we were lucky enough to come away with a win in that one. But he's definitely a great player."
Question: Is there an underrated guy that few know about?
Hawk's Answer: "A guy that flies under the radar is Dominic Raiola in Detroit. He's been a great center for them for years. I've had to face him twice a year now for a while and I have a lot of respect for his game."
Question: Do you prefer when offenses line up in big packages and try to run the football, or do you like it when teams spread you out and throw it?
Hawk's Answer: "As a linebacker, I do enjoy when teams try to line it up and run right down your throat. You take that as a challenge. You have to stop the run in the NFL, and, as a linebacker, that's always our first goal. But the game has evolved so much that teams are now throwing the ball so much and spreading people out to get their guys in space. I enjoy that challenge too. It's fun trying to defense that now. To be an inside linebacker these days in the NFL, you have to be able to do everything. Have to be able to run and cover guys, and be stout in the run game."
Question: What's the impact of losing Cullen Jenkins? Did you think the team would bring him back?
Hawk's Answer: "The thing about losing Cullen Jenkins is you just can't replace a guy like him. He's a special player. He's one of the best interior pass rushers I've ever seen. He's super quick, with good moves and just has a real knack for getting to the quarterback. And yeah, I was hoping we were going to find a way to bring him back, but I understand there's a business side to this. I know those kind of things don't always happen, especially this offseason with the lockout. We only have a short time to negotiate with him, which I'm sure made it tough on both sides."
Question: How has his (Jenkins) departure affected the defense?
Hawk's Answer: "Yeah, it hurts us. You can't replace a guy like that. But you know the thing about the Packers is that we're always drafting and trying to grow from within. I think we have a lot of young guys right now who can step in and play and they've looked good in camp already. We feel really confident in them to help offset that loss."
Question: What are the expectations of second-year defensive end Mike Neal in Jenkins' absence?
Hawk's Answer: "We have big expectations for Mike. It was unfortunate last year that Mike had the shoulder injury and had to go on the injured reserve. But this year we have super high expectations for Mike and I think he does too. He just does everything right. He came in and fit in from day one. The guy just fits with our team and meshed well with everyone. He works really hard, and he's a big strong guy with a ton of skill. So, as a linebacker, we love having guys like him up front helping us out."
Question: Another guy the Packers lost this offseason was Nick Barnett. When you came into the league in 2006, Nick was obviously already in Green Bay. How was your guys' relationship?
Hawk's Answer: "Nick was great the entire time he was here. I have a ton of respect for Nick and everything he's done here as a Packer. He's been a great linebacker here for a long time and he's going to continue to be a great one in Buffalo. But me and Nick always got along really well. We actually live about 10 houses down from each other here in Green By. I feel we always played well together when we were in there. Again, the longer I've stayed in the NFL, the more I see that you lose friends. They get traded, released, or things like that and you just have to find a way to deal with it and move on. But I think we'll always be friends forever."
Question: Do you and Desmond Bishop have that same kind of chemistry? You two obviously played well together during the Super Bowl stretch.
Hawk's Answer: "Me and Des work great, too. He got here one year after I did, so he's into his fifth year. But I do think me and Desmond play really well together. We've had great chemistry all along. We've been playing together in practice in short spurts here and there and games the past couple of years. But it's a full-time thing now. We feel really good about where we're at and we communicate really well. I think we play off each other's strengths and weaknesses. It's a good combination."
Question: You're obviously a leader on the Packers defense. What have you guys done to keep away any complacency? There's always a lot of talk this time of year about the Super Bowl hangover.
Hawk's Answer: "We're obviously aware of it. We're aware of how hard it is to repeat. But I don't think there was ever a question if we would become complacent, because if one feels like they've arrived or anything special, it can all go away quick. Yeah, we won the Super Bowl and we'll cherish that for life. But I think all winning the Super Bowl did was make us hungry to get back there and win it again. I think after we won and we all celebrated, the first thing we all talked about that same night was how we were going to come back here next year and do it all again. That's our hope. That's what all 32 teams in this league hope for. So, for us, complacency shouldn't be an issue."
Question: Does getting the guys back from injured reserve, like Ryan Grant and Jermichael Finley help eradicate any chance for complacency on this team? They always talk how they enjoyed the Super Bowl run but didn't feel like a big part of it.
Hawk's Answer: "Definitely. They bring a lot of energy. They are young guys with a lot of talent but they also bring a lot of energy to practice and our games. They're like a dog in a cage—all pent up last year rehabbing and watching the great run to the Super Bowl. But they were just as much a part of it as anyone else on the team. It took them to get us there. So, we love having those guys back. And a guy like Jermichael—here's the thing: He's going to have a monster year."
Question: You obviously signed a new contract right before the lockout. Was there any anxiety about not returning to the Packers or was that your plan all along?
Hawk's Answer: "No, that was always the plan. I always wanted to be with the Packers. I never had any doubt. At least in my mind, if they wanted me back I definitely wasn't going to be exploring other options. Of course, they had to cut me—I was released for about 12 hours—but we knew the whole time that we'd be in contact for a new deal. They called me before and said they were hoping to get a new contract. After I was released, they told me not to freak out if it went public, but we agreed on a new deal maybe three or fours hours after it all. There was never any question about me going anywhere else."
Question: You have your new deal and a Super Bowl ring. What are A.J. Hawk's expectations for himself now in 2011?
Hawk's Answer: "I have really high expectations for myself and this team. We are the Packers—one of the greatest organizations ever—so expectations are always high. For me, I feel like I should be coming into my prime and I feel really good right now mentally. I have been in the game for a little bit now—not forever, this will be just my sixth year—but hopefully I will have a good year. And hopefully if I have a good year that'll help the Packers get where they are trying to go—back to the Super Bowl."