The Northwest Daily | Football: AJ Hampton Jr. goes from laughing in the locker room to locking broads regularly

Northwestern was on course for its fourth straight loss last weekend.

Down 35-0 to No.18 in Wisconsin in the fourth quarter, the team looked for a solution to avoid their first shutout of the season. Fortunately, junior cornerback AJ Hampton Jr. was there to answer the bell. At the start of the fourth quarter, he picked up loose football as second-year linebacker Xander Mueller forced and proceeded to a high step into the end zone for a 49-yard scoop and a score.

Sending off Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz to the ground after a stiff arm with his left hand, Hampton Jr. celebrated his first career touchdown with shoulder bumps and helmet shots from his re-energized teammates.

“I just put the ball in the end zone and party with my defense,” said Hampton Jr. “We always preach on defense, ‘We have to score as defense, we have to help our offense . ‘”

By putting the Cats on the board for the first time in the entire game, Hampton Jr.’s play reflected his competitive advantage and his desire to support his team. It also bolstered his already impressive 2021 resume. The high school vocal leader co-leads the Big Ten in breakouts with 11 – a top 10 rating in the country. Even with potentially only two weeks remaining in the NU season, Hampton Jr. is likely on his way to an All-Big Ten final.

“I’m happy to see all of his hard work paying off,” said defensive back coach Matt MacPherson. “I’m not surprised because he has a great work ethic and a lot of commitment and focus.”

***

Hampton Jr. was your typical freak of nature coming out of high school. Paul R. Wharton High School Graduate managed to throw dimes to the quarterback, circle around opposing defenses to the running back and hide in the secondary to the defensive back.

The Arkansas native was a three-star rookie and he enlisted in Toledo. But a few months later, Hampton Jr. changed his future destination from Ohio to Illinois, disengaging from the Rockets to join the Wildcats’ 2018 recruiting class.

Hampton Jr. said he came to NU partly because of coach Pat Fitzgerald’s 40-year plan, but also for academics.

“Obviously we would all love to play soccer for the rest of our lives, but my dad is also a soccer coach,” said Hampton Jr. “He always says,“ You can only play soccer for a little while. moment, because the NFL stands for Not For Long. “”

The junior let go of his offensive toolbox upon entering NU. He focused strictly on the defensive side of the ball. This allowed him to hone his craft and save playing time in three games in the freshman. But he’s also been able to work side-by-side with players like cornerback Montre Hartage, safety JR Pace and 2021 NFL first-round cornerback Greg Newsome II, who co-led the Big Ten in the broken passes (nine) last year.

Hampton Jr. said those “old faces” in the secondary room helped him gain confidence and stay alert.

“They really made us feel welcome and taught us how to watch a movie, how to do the little things first,” Hampton Jr. said. “Most of us could play football when we got here… but it was is really the process and the way you spend your week and your day, until game day. “

Taking pages from former player books (he cites Newsome II’s unwavering confidence and Pace’s consistent speech as inspiration), Hampton Jr. observed his teammates’ play and developed his own. In doing so, he took on a greater leadership role for Team Sky as a veteran member of the group. At this point, Hampton Jr. was becoming the “old boss.”

Although he misses his mentors, Hampton Jr. believes in the “new guys step up, new guys take over” mindset and has confidence in his partners this season.

“(Second to safety Brandon Joseph) says if he’s not leading in interceptions then one of us has to be leading something,” said Hampton Jr .. “We all want to be the better and we all want to go to the league 100%. “

***

The ‘energy guy’ for defensive backs, Hampton Jr.’s charisma and fun aura shines most when he celebrates with his teammates after a big play and his dance moves spruce up social media accounts of the program after the victory.

Assistant defensive graduate and former Cats running back Jeremy Larkin said the junior defensive back’s high energy is contagious.

“It makes everyone collectively better as a team and makes everyone want to compete,” said Larkin. “Defensive backs are like ‘What do we want to be? And what is our standard? ‘ and one of them is the energy group. He is definitely the energizer.

MacPherson added that Hampton Jr.’s presence inside the White Lines reflects his strong everyday work ethic and passion for the sport. Even when the going gets tough, the vocal leader provides the spark of energy that ignites the team.

By pairing that uplifting vibe with consistently strong performances and improving his art with every outing, Hampton Jr. keeps up the slamming speech. Behind his passion, enthusiasm and consistent production, Hampton Jr. has played a leadership role for the Wildcats not only for the defensive back, but for the entire team.

“If the energy is low, AJ will increase it,” MacPherson said. “You feed off of it, you know, not just as a player, but as a coach. You see it and you’re like, ‘Okay, if he can be like that, I need to do walk my sorry butt and feed me on that energy too. ‘ “

***

In front of the Amicales Confines, Hampton Jr. and the high school must prepare not only for an attack with the second-most passing yards in the conference, but also for the Big Ten’s receiving yards leader, spreader David Bell.

Despite a tough game ahead, the Cats’ high school proved to be formidable. The group has played a role in at least one of the team’s take-out meals in seven of 10 games this season. In the other three competitions, NU collectively had a forced turnover.

“Trust us, go ahead and play fast, play for each other. It’s the most important thing, ”said Hampton Jr.

From coming on as a three-position threat to becoming one of the strongest defensive backs in the country, Hampton Jr. has made tremendous progress since his first year “thrown into the fire.” The junior builds a name for himself. And he’s ready to flex his signature pose to put his hands behind his back a few more times after squeezing another wide receiver before the end of the season.

“He’s just had a spectacular career,” Fitzgerald said. “The year of freshmen is not easy, and then being thrown onto the field in the arena makes it even more difficult. I think he answered, he worked his tail, he has great energy.

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