To kick off a summer of football at Inside NU, we are counting down Northwestern’s Top 10 Most Important Players in 2021. We’ve put our heads together as a staff, used the unruly power of democracy and created a list that has already caused plenty of disagreement.
The list’s criteria simply consisted of players we believe to be the most important to Northwestern football in 2021. However, we know that is up for interpretation. For some, it could mean the value of one player over his backup. It could mean players in crucial roles. It could also mean players who have underperformed and need to step up.
Only one thing is known: no two lists from our staff members are the same. That’s why for each player, we’ll have at least one member break down their placement for the aforementioned player.
Sarah Effress (6)
For what is arguably Northwestern’s strongest position group (according to a sizable number of InsideNU staffers) heading into the 2021 season, AJ Hampton will play an important role in preserving the momentum the DB corps established last year as a dominant unit. Though he was not the most accomplished member of the backfield, the redshirt junior saw several bright spots alongside Brandon Joseph and the departed Greg Newsome II, Cam Ruiz and JR Pace — bright spots that earned him a top ten berth in InsideNU’s composite rankings as well as my own.
Hampton came out the gate strong in 2020, becoming the first Wildcat to collect back-to-back interceptions since Blake Gallagher in 2019. However, once the more difficult and critical Big Ten Matchups came around, most of the pressure at cornerback was shifted onto the shoulders of the more prominent names in Newsome and Ruiz, giving Hampton little opportunity to put up box score numbers.
Nonetheless, Hampton performed when he was needed, as the Warren, Arkansas, native notched a career high eight total tackles against Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship game and ended the season on a high. He boosted his stat-line in every category significantly from 2019, tallying four more solo tackles in four fewer games and just about tripling his assisted tackles to name a few.
It’s evident that the cornerback has big shoes to fill. He’s stepping into a starting position that was previously filled by a dominant college player and a now first round draft pick, and that task comes with a certain amount of pressure. It’s worth considering that Hampton has not had a permanent starting role on this Wildcat team yet, and consistent play could be an adjustment he needs to make. However, Hampton remains one of the most experienced members of new defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil’s secondary, and he should be able to pick up in the strong spot he left off last season.
If the Hampton-led DB crew can stick to receivers with the same tenacity as last year, there should be no reason to worry about Northwestern’s most highly touted position group. So, fingers crossed that the redshirt junior will show up on game-day with as much energy as he carries to NU women’s basketball games, and continue to lock down the backfield like Wildcat fans have come to expect.