Future brighter, sooner? Sam Mitchell's Hawks are exceeding expectations

In a football landscape so saturated with content it's hard to go five minutes without having your brain cells assaulted by the next attention-seeking "hot take", Hawthorn in 2023 is presenting AFL media megaphones with quite the conundrum. And I'm loving it.

Look at Hawthorn's season without context and you see the sort of position which ordinarily would be causing howls of discontent from the headline writers, if not the fans. The Hawks are 16th on the ladder, have won just seven games, and on no fewer than eight occasions, have been blown away by margins of 54 points or more.

That's the sort of profile which more often than not inspires demands for massive player turnovers or coach sackings or both.

But now consider that Hawthorn has achieved four of those seven wins against top eight teams the calibre of Collingwood, Brisbane, St Kilda and now after a nailbiter on Sunday, Western Bulldogs.

Consider that the Hawks under Sam Mitchell are putting together a very impressive line-up of young stars of the future (even today in a few cases) and playing a daring, attacking style of football prepared to take a risk to earn reward.

And consider the extent of the list revamp Hawthorn undertook at the end of last year, vast experience jettisoned to a degree rarely (if ever) seen in the modern game in order to help expedite the arrival of a new era. It's easy to forget that given how quickly the new guard has taken the bit between its teeth.

The departures of Jack Gunston, Kyle Hartigan, Daniel Howe, Ben McEvoy, Tom Mitchell, Jaeger O'Meara, Tom Phillips and Liam Shiels meant Hawthorn lost a collective 1392 games AFL experience. That's an incredible amount in one hit.

The result was that Hawthorn went into 2023 not just with the youngest list in the AFL, but by a fair stretch the least experienced, with a games played average of 42.8. Even the next youngest list, Adelaide's, had an average comfortably more than 50.

The pre-season predictions of gloom and doom were predictable, and the critical talk about whether Hawthorn had cut too deeply into its player stocks even more so after the Hawks were pumped by 59 and 81 points in their first two games against Essendon and Sydney.

But this group is coming on very quickly under Mitchell, a coach who refuses to shut up shop and minimise potential damage at the expense of these Hawks learning to spread their wings and play an adventurous, enterprising brand of football.

After just one win from the first nine games this season, Hawthorn has now won half its subsequent dozen games. It's also lost three games by three points or less. Another goal in those and with two games remaining it would now be battling it out for a spot in the final eight.

And it's the roll call of emerging talent as much as anything which must be exciting Hawk fans right now.

Take the Hawks' two best players against the Bulldogs, Jai Newcombe and Will Day. That was Newcombe's 50th game, Day's 52nd. Both are complete packages, strong in the contest but also skilled with ball in hand.

They now are indisputably the leaders of a midfield Mitchell trusted to reach a high level quickly enough to warrant letting the likes of Brownlow medallist Mitchell and O'Meara go.

As you might expect of a coach who was a Brownlow Medal-winning on-baller, for Mitchell, the midfield is where the business of rebuilding starts, winning plenty of the football (Hawthorn was ranked No. 2 for disposals before the weekend) and moving it swiftly and directly, the Hawks ranked second for use of the corridor out of defence, and sixth for defensive to forward 50 transition.

It's bold coaching with such a young and inexperienced group of players, and it means when the Hawks do turn the ball over, it's often in vulnerable positions from which they are exploited, several Bulldog goals on Sunday the direct result of turnovers close to goal.

But the plusses for Mitchell and the Hawks are far outweighing the negatives, regardless of the number of how many off days and beltings may occur along the way. And that's become increasingly obvious over the last fortnight in the wins over Collingwood and now the Bulldogs.

There's young talent improving at a rate of knots all over the ground for Hawthorn, the likes of Connor Macdonald, Josh Weddle, Josh Ward, Ned Reeves, Finn Maginness. One of the Hawks' brightest young stars, Changkuoth Jiath, has barely played this season.

And even the Hawks' most senior players now are still relatively young. 100-gamer James Worpel is only 24, as is Mitch Lewis, Dylan Moore and Jack Scrimshaw. Luke Breust and Chad Wingard are the only players over 30.

The latter's future is now problematic after appearing to have ruptured an achilles against the Bulldogs, unfortunate, as he'd appeared to be recapturing some more vintage form, but were he not to continue, it would, with all due respect, be far from a hammer blow for the Hawks.

The upshot of all this remains a likely finish of 16th, of course. But it's a 16th with a far, far bigger upside than in last year's eight wins by the Hawks, or in the seven wins and two draws the year before that, or probably even the last year Hawthorn played finals, back in 2018, when already the writing about eras ending was on the wall.

Mitchell certainly hasn't wasted any time writing his own story, with his own version of Hawthorn. And already it's looking like it's going to end up a cracking read.

You can read more of Rohan Connolly's work at FOOTYOLOGY