EVANSTON, Ill. — He’s comfortable playing a position that requires him to sit out an island and defend one side of the field.
After all, A.J. Hampton trusts himself, his teammates, coaches and the system. The numbers don’t lie and Northwestern finished first in the Big Ten and 19th in the FBS in passing yards allowed last season. Not to mention the Wildcats’ defense led the league in interceptions and only allowed eight passing touchdowns through nine games.
Not even the loss of All-Big Ten corner and projected NFL first round pick Greg Newsome will slow down Northwestern’s momentum in the secondary. All-American safety Brandon Joseph returns, but Hampton is the veteran of the back four on defense and a ballhawk too.
The Arkansas native has been with the program since 2018, but has only started four career games. After his solid campaign last season, Hampton looks like a natural and he doesn’t consider himself a late bloomer. He credits his improvement to the system and been pushing the line through spring ball.
The former three-star prospect is a strong believer in stepping up to the plate and feels the secondary is in good hands.
“I definitely feel really good about the future of Northwestern in terms of the players we’re bringing in, because the culture’s changing,” Hampton said.
He wants to build on the 26 tackles he generated in 2020. The interception in the opening win over Maryland and the eight stops he tallied against Ohio State was just the tip of the iceberg for Hampton. He has already established a great relationship with new Defensive Coordinator Jim O’Neil.
The 5-foot-11, 180-pound Hampton enjoys the passion O’Neil is bringing to every practice. He also loves picking his brain. O’Neil is teaching the defensive backs NFL tips like route coming recognition and certain techniques. Now the entire secondary is dialed in.
“Respond to the ball, everything is about the ball and we’re trying to get turnovers,” Hampton said. “We’re putting a big emphasis on getting the ball, giving it to the offense and scoring touchdowns, bottom line.”
Hampton believes he learned from the best and is proud of his former teammate Newsome. He took Hampton under his wing and hosted him on his official visit to Northwestern. The two also had a brotherhood. Newsome taught Hampton to treat every practice like it’s his last and take nothing for granted.
“He (Newsome) takes everything personally, he wants to be the best and he wants to win,” he said. “I feel like that’s definitely a big reason why I’ve been trying to teach the young guys.”
Hampton plays with a chip on his shoulder and wants to be the enforcer of the secondary. Physicality is a must and he wants to set the tone, plus make his teammates feed off his energy. O’Neil is slowing the scheme down in practice to make it all simpler for the defenders. Hampton believes it will make everyone play faster when they don’t have to think as much.
It’s why Hampton doesn’t believe there will be much of a drop off in production for the Wildcats’ defense. He’s actually thinking this year’s version could be just as tenacious.
“We’re trying to be a top team, so we have to make it known early that we’re here for us and really don’t care.”