JMU Athletic Communications
HARRISONBURG — Even though James Madison and Norfolk State have never met, Saturday won’t be the first time Dukes senior linebacker Kyre Hawkins and Spartans junior running back Aaron Savage share a football field.
“I’ve hit him before,” Hawkins said.
JMU’s leading tackler, Hawkins, and Norfolk State’s leading rusher, Savage, were childhood friends and grew up together in Baltimore.
The two played rec league football against each other when they were kids, Hawkins said, before teaming up to wrestle and patrol the same gridiron at Dunbar High School.
Hawkins always played exclusively at linebacker for the Poets, but Savage was a two-way athlete — carrying the ball as a running back in high school and starting alongside Hawkins on defense as a linebacker.
“He’s one of my longtime friends and I’m excited to play against him,” Savage said. “I know there’s going to be a little bit of trash talk going back and forth, but obviously you play football for the competition, so I’m looking forward to it.”
The two haven’t been in contact this week, but Hawkins said they’re both well aware of each other’s ability.
Norfolk State plays 23 true or redshirt freshmen and has only six scholarship seniors on its roster.
Savage, who rushed for 98 yards and hauled in three catches in the first two games, is considered to be a team leader by Spartans coach Latrell Scott.
“Aaron has brought a ton of stability,” Scott said. “Aaron was a guy in a committee of backs last year, but he’s our feature back right now and we have to make sure offensively that we give him more touches.
“But he’s also a 3.0 GPA optical engineering student, so he’s very serious about everything and when you got a football player that’s serious about school, he’s definitely going to be serious about football. He’s a steady hand in a young locker room.”
When JMU had a middle linebacker suspended and another injured in the 2016 FCS title game against Youngstown State, it was Hawkins who the coaching staff asked to move from outside linebacker to inside to fill the void.
Hawkins recorded a season-high five tackles against the Penguins, and hasn’t left the position since he became a source of stability in the heart of Madison’s defense.
“He saved us in the championship game by being able to move inside,” JMU defensive coordinator Bob Trott said. “We were pleased with that.
“Versatility is pretty important and I think if you look in the NFL with the numbers that they have, they have to be versatile. I think with the numbers that we have, that we have to be versatile. So the more you can do it, the better, and Kyre has been able to do it.”
The 6-foot, 217-pound anchor has been the Dukes’ top defender this season, too, racking up 18 total tackles and notching a Colonial Athletic Association Defensive Player of the Week honor for his 13-tackle effort in JMU’s 34-14 season-opening win at East Carolina.
Savage said their high school days set them both up for success.
The program at Dunbar has produced numerous Division I football players such as Hawkins, Savage and Tavon Austin, who starred at West Virginia before being drafted by the St. Louis Rams.
Hawkins echoed the thoughts of his friend-turned-temporary-foe.
“I loved every bit of Dunbar football,” Hawkins said. “A lot of my friends from that team ended going off and playing at great schools as well.
“That’s a great shout-out to coach Lawrence [Smith] there. He’s doing a great job of producing really good men and even better athletes.”
So when Hawkins shoots through a gap to try to tackle Savage, both will be ready.
“He’s a physical guy, so I know what to look for from him,” Savage said. “And my skill set has changed, and I’m sure his skill set has changed a little bit, so it’ll be a fun experience.”