Football: The return of No. 11: A.J. Hampton Jr. is ready to ball after missing five games due to injury
October 27, 2022
Senior defensive back A.J. Hampton Jr. had the Big Ten in the palm of his hand last November.
Entering Northwestern’s (1-6, 1-3 Big Ten) Friendly Confines contest against the Purdue Boilermakers, the starter co-led the Big Ten in pass breakups with 11 — a top-10 mark in the country. By the end of the season, Hampton Jr. saw the fruits of his labor, finishing second in the Big Ten in passes defended and an All-Big Ten honorable mention.
And with this momentum, even without being named to an All-Big Ten preseason team, the likelihood of Hampton Jr. turning out an even better season seemed high.
But the Arkansas native’s upward trajectory took a hit during NU’s first contest against Nebraska. During the first play of the second quarter, Cornhuskers quarterback Casey Thompson made a muffled snap out of nothing — finding his tight end Travis Vokolek 14 yards down the field.
Hampton Jr. was covering the six-foot-seven Vokolek, but he couldn’t make a play on the ball. Both players fell to the ground after the catch and Vokolek rose up immediately, pointing his arm and football forward to celebrate the first down. But the Cats starter stayed on the ground, beckoning to the NU sideline for help.
“(It was) definitely a first-time experience,” Hampton Jr. said. “I’ve had injuries, but never none that’s kept me out of the game for that long.”
With the help of NU staff members, Hampton Jr. made his way to the sideline with a limp in every step. Later in the contest, fans received news of Hampton Jr.’s status, but not the type they wanted to hear. NU tweeted that Hampton Jr. would be out for the rest of the game with a lower body injury.
Although the Cats came away victorious, rushing onto the field to hoist the Aer Lingus Classic trophy, a major question left in the hearts of the team, fans and Hampton Jr. himself was when he’d return back to the field.
“It was tough to see him go out in the first game of the season,” junior defensive back Rod Heard II said. “He’s a seasoned player. He’s been here for a long time (and has) made a lot of great plays.”
A vibrant ‘energy-guy’ in between and outside the white lines, it wasn’t in Hampton Jr.’s nature to let the injury get the best of him. Rather, he said it gave him a chance to tackle and strengthen different parts of his game.
“I realized it’s not necessarily about my timing, it’s about God’s timing,” Hampton Jr. said. “That allowed me to really take that next step and be not only a better teammate to the younger guys getting a lot of reps, but just really helped me be out there emotionally.”
Throughout the longtime starter’s absence, NU turned to multiple defensive backs in the Sky Room, including junior Garnett Hollis Jr., sophomore Theran Johnson and sophomore Ore Adeyi. Hampton Jr.’s hiatus provided each with their first true college experience, so he made sure to continue being his vocal self — just from the sidelines.
To him, this meant attacking the rehab process at 100%, whether it be lifting, studying the playbook, or becoming an aide to cornerback coach Ryan Smith.
“He used (the injury) as motivation and not something that was hindering him,” Smith said. “To have a guy like that in the room that you know is really close to the age of the freshman, that can be a second coach in the room and be a coach out on the field, is something that is … integral to success.”
A 2014 College of William & Mary graduate, Smith understands what experienced, veteran defensive backs bring to any college program — he racked up 47 tackles, one sack and an interception during his senior season. Smith said having players who have gone through the fire that can speak on real life experiences make a huge impact on the entire defensive back room.
Graduate student and redshirt senior defensive back Jeremiah Lewis said not only has Hampton Jr.’s presence in the locker room been influential, but also his veteran presence.
Additionally, Lewis has had to make the transition from cornerback in Durham at Duke to safety since coming to Evanston. Having to learn a new system and parts of a different position, Lewis said Hampton Jr. helped make the move smoother.
“Since he had been in the system for a while playing corner and stuff he kind of knows what to also anticipate from the safeties perspective,” Lewis said. “He’s been able to give me some insight as far as what I should be preparing for (and) things I should look into.”
Hampton Jr.’s absence from NU’s lineups would stretch from the end of August, past Homecoming and into the thick of October.
But last Saturday against Maryland, No. 11 finally made his return to the field and made an open-field tackle late into the first quarter.
“There’s not really much to say but it felt good,” Hampton said. “I’m like a little kid, I can’t lie. Sitting around on the sideline, that’s not my type of game. I want to be out there, contributing, communicating and having fun.”
Hampton Jr. finished with six tackles, still working to get his groove back — partially involved in allowing the Terrapins running back Roman Hemby’s 75-yard house call in the fourth quarter as the final blow in the 31-24 loss. He said the time off strengthened his mentality and helped him get closer to his teammates — a key to success when it comes to on-field communication.
Like Hampton’s teammates and Smith, coach Pat Fitzgerald expressed his excitement at having Hampton Jr. back on the field, noting that his game is only going to get better as the season continues.
“I’d say he’s really close to being back full speed,” Fitzgerald said. “It was a long drought of him being off the field, but we collectively thought he did some really good things.”
Fitzgerald said Hampton Jr. was close to returning for the past few weeks, but due to a few setbacks, NU wanted to be cautious and not play him. Yet, through this determination and focus, Hampton Jr. joined the Cats back on the field with five games left in Big Ten play.
Although he couldn’t compete in NU’s Homecoming matchup versus Wisconsin weeks ago, he now has the opportunity to rain on the Iowa Hawkeyes’ (3-4, 1-3 Big Ten) Homecoming game, as the Cats travel to Iowa City to face their third Big Ten West opponent of the season.
Hampton Jr. is motivated to compete for the rest of the season after taking a break from the field and help hold the Sky Room to a high standard of being the best.
“I want to be one of the best DBs if not the best DB in the nation plain and simple,” Hampton Jr. said. “Most of our goals is the NFL, so I feel like I’m doing a disservice if I’m chewing you because I want you to be the best, but it’s all love at the end of the day.”
Email: [email protected]
— These nine plays determined NU football’s 31-24 loss to Maryland
— Northwestern’s rushing game lifted the team despite close loss to Maryland
— Northwestern flashes potential, but surrenders lead in 31-24 loss to Maryland