LAWRENCE — The story goes that Kathy Hawkinson forced her son to take piano lessons during his first years of elementary school. She wanted her children to be well-rounded. And perhaps she didn’t realize that young Tanner would grow to be 6-foot-5 and more than 300 pounds.
But on Saturday afternoon, as Kansas senior and McPherson High grad Tanner Hawkinson bided his time at an NFL Draft party at his brother’s place in Lawrence, those piano lessons came in handy.
The Cincinnati Bengals were impressed enough with Hawkinson’s character and intangibles — in addition to his potential on the offensive line — to select him with the 23rd pick of the fifth round on Saturday.
“I’m very happy to get the kid,” Bengals offensive line coach Paul Alexander said. “He plays the piano. We may have to play a duet together. He’s smart, he’s a great character guy, team captain, very competitive, a nice All-American boy.”
Of course, there are other, more football-centric reasons that Hawkinson became the first KU football player to be drafted since 2010. After a four-year career in which Hawkinson set the school record for consecutive starts, the Bengals believe they acquired a lineman that can provide depth at tackle, guard and center.
“He’s a very versatile guy,” Alexander said. “He’s going to play all the spots and make everyone’s seat a little uncomfortable.”
That all sounded fine for Hawkinson, who received a call from Bengals coach Marvin Lewis on Saturday afternoon.
“It definitely feels surreal,” Hawkinson said. “Just the whole time, the whole process, it’s a long process. You’re so anxious and excited, and when you get that call, it kind of hits you a little bit.”
If this was the beginning of Hawkinson’s NFL journey, it was the end of a Kansas career that included a mix of bitter and sweet. Hawkinson, a McPherson native, arrived at KU as a standout tight end, prepared to play under former KU coach Mark Mangino.
But after a redshirt year, Mangino converted Hawkinson into a tackle. Shortly after, he was playing with the first team. And he would remain a starter through two coaching changes and four losing seasons.
“You’re not necessarily expecting this to happen,” Hawkinson said of the position switch. “But fortunately it worked out. I’m just glad the coaches saw I could excel at a new position.”
Hawkinson will follow in the footsteps of former KU offensive tackle Anthony Collins, who is entering his sixth season with the Bengals. Cincinnati finished 10-6 last season and made the NFL playoffs as a wild card. And after starting at left tackle last season, Hawkinson’s rookie season could also include a position change.
Alexander said Hawkinson drew high marks for his athleticism, footwork and versatility, but there were some concerns over his strength. A wrist ailment limited his ability to record a good bench-press number at the Jayhawks’ pro day — he did 13 reps — and Alexander says he’ll need to get stronger to make an impact at the NFL level.
“He’s kind of a young guy bodywise,” Alexander said. (He’s) maybe a little bit behind some others, and is going to mature and get stronger and grow into it and, hopefully, be a great NFL player.”
Also landing on a NFL team Saturday was KU safety Bradley McDougald, who was not drafted but signed a free-agent contract with the Chiefs.