STATE COLLEGE – More than 500 miles separate Aeneas Hawkins and Shamar Jones, but the two cousins with Johnstown ties remain as close as ever.

Phone calls and text messages between the two every week are routine, but this week, those exchanges carry added significance.

“To play against each other at this level is something we’ve talked about really since we started getting recruited,” Hawkins said. “That’s been a big topic of discussion. There’s been a lot of competitiveness back and forth – a lot of love.”

Hawkins is a defensive tackle for Penn State, and Jones is a defensive tackle for Indiana. Both are redshirt freshmen. On Saturday, the two will play against each other for the first time in their football careers.

“I just love to compete, and being against him, we compete against each other all of the time,” said Jones, a Greater Johnstown High alumnus. “So we compete against each other in everything that we do – who wants to be stronger, who wants to be faster. We just love that stuff.”

Hawkins’ and Jones’ football futures were predetermined before they were born.

Hawkins’ father and Jones’ uncle, Artrell Hawkins Jr., played collegiately at the University of Cincinnati and enjoyed an 11-year career in the NFL with the Bengals, Patriots and Panthers. He graduated from Johnstown’s Bishop McCort Catholic High.

Hawkins’ grandfather, Artrell Hawkins Sr., played at the University of Pittsburgh and attended training camp with the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers. In total, six relatives have played either in the college or professional ranks.

Those inherited skills helped propel both youngsters as they advanced on the football field. Jones posted 244 career tackles at Greater Johnstown High and helped the Trojans win back-to-back district championships. Hawkins starred at Cincinnati’s Moeller High and was designated a four-star recruit by ESPN and Rivals.

Although they grew up in different cities, the two leaned on each other throughout their high school years and as they navigated the recruiting process.

“We took a lot of trips together, and we did a lot of workouts, D-line-specific stuff together,” Hawkins said. “So for me, just as recruits, I’ve always been able to learn a lot from being around Shamar. We’re similar players, but he does some things better than I do, and I do some things better than he does. Anything we can take from one another, we’ve always done it that way.”

Saturday will serve as a reunion of sorts for both families. Hawkins and Jones said they’ve received nearly 50 ticket requests for the game. With Johnstown located just 80 miles from State College, Jones expects a large contingent of family and friends to converge at Beaver Stadium.

“I’ve got a lot of family and friends coming to the game, they really like what I’m doing this year,” said Jones, who was part of Greater Johnstown district championship teams in 2015 and 2016. “They think I’m doing pretty good and would like to come and support me. And being from home, it’s not that far away, so they get an easier shot to come and see me play.”

Hawkins and Jones played together on the defensive line as high school seniors for Team USA in the 2018 International Bowl in Dallas, but Saturday marks the first time they’ll meet as opponents.

“Obviously he wants his team to win and I want my team to win, but there will never be a situation where I’m rooting against Shamar – I don’t really focus on that side of it,” Hawkins said. “It’s special to me that we both made it this far. I know a lot about Shamar’s journey, and he knows everything about mine. So it’s just a blessing to be in this situation.”

After redshirting last year, Jones has played in all nine of Indiana’s contests this season. He’s accumulated seven tackles and was credited for half of a sack against Connecticut.

“I think every game I’m improving,” Jones said. “I would like to keep improving, just get better every week, every day, every rep, and continue to work my craft.”

Hawkins also redshirted in 2018 and logged playing time against Idaho this fall.

“Aeneas is a neat kid,” Penn State head coach James Franklin said. “He has a really strong personality, and he’s very comfortable in his own skin. He’s doing really well in school. He comes from a great family and has a really diverse background. A lot of football in his background with family and uncles – a lot of successful people in his family.”

The years of visualizing and dreaming of playing high-level college football have now become a reality for Hawkins and Jones. Although they’ll don different uniforms and stand on opposite sidelines this weekend, both will bask in each other’s success.

Football has been a tie that has bonded the Hawkins and Jones families for years, and on Saturday, it will once again provide a milestone moment.

“Football is something that my family has done at a pretty high level, however, we haven’t had a whole lot of events where there have been two of us at one time playing each other or with each other,” Hawkins said. “So to be able to bring everybody together for this is pretty cool. It’s special to us. That’s kind of how my family has always connected at a certain level.”

CNHI Indiana’s Kevin Brockway contributed to this story.

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