This past season, Northwestern’s defense was one of the best in college football. It’s been well-documented how stingy it was given that the ‘Cats surrendered the fifth-fewest points per game and allowed the lowest opposing passing efficiency in the entire FBS.
A key reason why NU was so dominant on the defensive side of the ball was its secondary. Led by eventual first-rounder Greg Newsome as well as First-Team All-American safety Brandon Joseph, Pat Fitzgerald and Mike Hankwitz developed an Evanston rendition of the No Fly Zone.
Entering 2021, Joseph has become one of the most highly touted players in the country as he seeks to build off of a sensational freshman year. However, another defensive back who figures to see large shares of playing time is A.J. Hampton, Jr..
Hampton, a former three-star prospect, was utilized as more of a rotational corner in 2020, as he played behind Newsome and Cam Ruiz. But with Newsome missing most of the 2020 Big Ten Championship Game — as well as sitting out the Virbo Citrus Bowl — Hampton saw large tracts of playing time, giving fans a glimpse into NU’s presumptive secondary this upcoming season.
What traits does the junior corner hailing from Arkansas flash, and how can he step up to fill Newsome’s shield-sized void, especially by refining certain areas of his game?
Let’s take a look and find out.
Precision and Physicality in Man
The first thing that jumped off the page while combing through Hampton’s tape was his acumen for man coverage, mixing pinpoint movements with undeterred strength.
The following play against Purdue concludes in a sack, yet a large reason why nobody was open was that Hampton had erased the entire left side of the field by suffocating his receiver. Hampton — located at the top of the screen — does a marvelous job getting his hands high on the wide receiver’s pads, staying on his back hip and mirroring his out route to the point that he’s totally neutralized.
It’s not a stretch to say that that Joseph’s one-handed interception against Justin Fields and Ohio State in the Big Ten Title Game is NU’s best highlight in decades. While Joseph deservedly received his acclaim, the world-class play might not have happened without Hampton’s efforts.
On the outside, Hampton commits an ever-so-slight grab of his opponent’s jersey, enabling the cornerback to lock onto his target. Could that have been called defensive holding? Potentially. Nevertheless, Hampton blankets his receiver.
It’s also impressive how Hampton navigated a myriad of oncoming traffic via a route pattern developing with two receivers (and Joseph) very near one another, as the junior corner smoothly sticks to his assignment.
On this play vs Michigan State, Hampton initiates contact by extending his arm and putting his hand on the receiver’s left shoulder. Then, as the WR breaks back inside, Hampton nimbly recollects himself and turns around without stumbling or losing any ground. Finally, as the receiver twists back outside one final time, Hampton uses his right arm to slightly hook the wideout’s waist, thus implementing it as a brace of sorts. All in all, this is a route that would’ve had many cornerbacks flailing — but not Hampton.
And in this instance from the Citrus Bowl, Hampton firmly jams his opposition and stays with him as he runs a slot fade, his efforts culminating in a pass breakup.
Speaking of Hampton’s pass breakups, another tremendous part of his game is his ability to locate and make a play on the football.
In Northwestern’s opener against Maryland, Hampton snagged his second career interception. While the INT was more so a bad throw from Taulia Tagovailoa as opposed to hermetically sealed coverage from Hampton, the corner still flashed secure hands as he reaches up to snare the ball.
The aforementioned snippet against Purdue wasn’t Hampton’s only highlight against the Boilermakers. On an island by himself at the bottom of the screen, Hampton ranges over phenomenally before diving to disrupt a catch on a ball thrown well outside the numbers. Get up and flex indeed.
As his snap counts increased, so too did Hampton’s instances of knocking the ball away from or even out of the hands of receivers. Here, Hampton is glued to his opponent and swats it with his left hand while his other is locked onto the WR. Admittedly, this ball isn’t located where it should be (oh, Bo Nix), but Hampton’s play shouldn’t be taken for granted.
And finally, Hampton does an excellent job leaving his assignment — that’s a good thing in this case — and lowering the boom, thrusting his shoulder into presumptive first-rounder Garrett Wilson. If you get Gus Johnson amped, you’re definitely doing something right.
Collaborative Work in Zone
Hampton doesn’t just flourish in man, leveraging his understanding of coverage as well as the position of his teammates to perform solidly in zone.
In yet another standout play versus the Terrapins, Hampton was assigned a deep zone on the left side of the field. Not only does Hampton monitor the receiver in his vicinity very well, but he also does an excellent job of high-pointing and converging on the ball with teammate Coco Azema. Even if Azema hadn’t been in position to secure the INT, Hampton would’ve batted the ball away.
Much as he did in NU’s first regular-season contest, Hampton also demonstrated his zone acumen against Illinois. On this down, Hampton inches towards his designated flat on the outside, but before he fixates upon the running back spilling out of the backfield, he gives a microscopic nudge to the outside receiver to slow him down. In this case, Hampton deftly passes off his initial opponent to Joseph while also impeding the development of the route.
Fundamentals, Finesse and Freight When Tackling
Given Hampton’s physicality in coverage, the fact that he’s generally a trustworthy tackler should come as little surprise.
Take these this play made early on in the first minute against Ohio State.
In the first, Hampton recognizes early that Fields’ intended target is within striking distance. Consequently, Hampton charges forward before driving his force into Julian Fleming. I particularly like that Hampton made contact with what appears to be the top of his pad as opposed to the crown of his head, as the latter would’ve warranted a targeting penalty.
Overall, it seems that Hampton certainly isn’t afraid to initiate contact on an offensive player. More specifically, he may even relish the challenge of countering opponents’ jukes.
Northwestern fans are far too aware of the damage that Trey Sermon committed against the Wildcats in the Big Ten Championship Game. But here, Hampton gets the better of Sermon on a boot by going low and taking out Sermon’s legs. This is a superb open-field tackle and, frankly, one that may have saved a touchdown.
There’s no more prime example of Hampton’s skill as a tackler than this snap against Auburn. Hampton instantly recognizes the read option, maneuvers around Seth Williams and then absolutely shoves Bo Nix into the turf. While many cornerbacks are susceptible to going low on a hurdle — to which Hampton himself could attest based on the game before this — Hampton isn’t fooled and hence reaps the rewards of a hard-nosed play.
Areas for Growth
Better Situational Awareness
Although Hampton shows promise, he has certain elements of his craft that he could improve—even if it’s the little things.
On several occasions, Hampton simply didn’t make a sound play on the ball, largely due to unforced errors.
In the video below, Hampton takes part in solid man coverage during Cover 1 Robber. However, the issue is that he locks onto his receiver so much that he doesn’t notice that Graham Mertz is taking off. If Hampton had turned his head around and disengaged the block from the WR, he likely could have shrunken Mertz’ running lane.
Another facet of concern was Hampton committing unnecessary pass interference. When matched up with Garrett Wilson one-on-one, Hampton truly clamps Wilson on an out-and- up — an arduous route to cover — but then gets tangled up with Wilson. Granted, Wilson pulls a trick out of a pro’s hat by drawing the unwarranted contact, but Hampton must know better than to fall for the bait and get penalized.
Here, Hampton is effectively step-for-step with his opponent and in a sound position to contest the catch, barring an immaculate throw from Nix (shockingly, that does not happen). Yet by draping himself over and tugging on the wideout’s jersey, Hampton draws a flag that was entirely avoidable.
Granting Comfortable Cushion
There were also several instances in which Hampton afforded too much space to wide receivers. Take this incompletion vs. Michigan State in which Hampton gets beaten underneath due to playing too far back on a third and short, only to be bailed out by a dropped pass.
The same can be said in zone coverage, too. Facing off against Wilson once more, Hampton— who plays the deep zone as the only man on the right side — gives Wilson too much space and can’t converge on the precise post corner. This play isn’t as black and white as “Hampton didn’t cover well enough” since he had to watch for late-developing routes in his area, but earlier awareness of no receivers breaking into his zone, as well as trust in his cover-mates, could have led to this being jarred incomplete.
Though Hampton is generally pretty nimble, he sometimes ran into trouble with fine-tuned navigation towards WRs.
In this instance, Hampton does a great job mirroring his receiver’s route in man. But as the play begins to break down, the wideout almost shrugs off Hampton and seems to gain a bit of separation, albeit off screen. It’s certainly tough to hang with a route for that long, and the full picture isn’t displayed, though Hampton does appear to lose a step.
A similar situation unfolds later in the Wisconsin game as Hampton gets caught being too aggressive on a comeback route, losing lots of ground as the WR gets free.
No play better encapsulates Hampton’s struggles with backpedaling than this zone coverage against Auburn in which he awkwardly traipses over his own feet and is late getting to the receiver.
Taking the Next Step as a Tackler
In spite of the praise bestowed earlier, Hampton could clean up some things regarding tackling.
For as strong and willing as Hampton is to take down opponents, he does, from time to time, get outmatched. Take this gallop by Sermon in which Hampton a) struggles to lose his blocker and b) takes a gnarly stiff arm to the face.
Unequivocally, this was the worst play I found when watching Hampton. Not only does he prematurely jump the route, but even after he catches up to the receiver, he can’t bring him down from behind.
On the whole, Hampton has all of the fundamental skills to be a great corner: physicality, smart yet tight coverage in man and zone and a will to tackle. As his playing time augmented, Hampton definitely flashed traits that could make him NU’s next lockdown cornerback.
While I do feel that Hampton could better some facets of his game, these alterations are largely minor, and, truthfully, could be due to a lack of starting experience. Hampton didn’t see consistent snaps until NU’s last two games.
Given that Northwestern’s offense is mired in uncertainty with Hunter Johnson as its starting quarterback and sans standout sophomore running back Cam Porter, Pat Fitzgerald’s defense must step up and perform at a similar caliber to last season.
Replacing Greg Newsome (NFL) and Cam Ruiz (transfer) will be no easy feat, but Hampton, who figures to start alongside Cam Mitchell, will play a decidedly large role in dictating the Wildcats’ upcoming campaign as well as his own NFL Draft stock.
Under even brighter lights this year, Hampton has a golden opportunity to solidify himself as a premier corner in not just the Big Ten, but also the nation.