In continuing our postseason football coverage, we are counting down Northwestern’s Top 10 best players from the 2022 season. We’ve created a composite averaging the rankings of each of our staffer’s respective lists, revealing who we believe were the Wildcats’ best from this year.
Everybody’s lists are different, so for each player, we’ll have a staff member break down why they voted what they voted. To start off, senior cornerback A.J. Hampton:
Jake Mozarsky (9)
Stats: 21 total tackles, 18 solo, one tackle-for-loss, one fumble recovery
Hampton, a senior from Warren, Arkansas, came into the season after getting all Big Ten honorable mentions in 2021. The secondary was a bright spot on a Northwestern team that did not have many going into the year, and Hampton was going to contribute to that. He and Cam Mitchell were supposed to be two of the top corners in the conference.
But, in week zero in Ireland, the senior suffered an ankle injury in the first quarter against Nebraska, and this set his season back. While he returned Oct. 24 against Maryland, he missed a good half of the year, and was not able to have the same mentions or accolades that he had in 2021.
Shortly after the season concluded, Hampton announced his intent to leave Northwestern and play somewhere else as a graduate transfer. His 2022 season provides a little glimpse into what he could be for another team, while also showing why he hasn’t taken that step yet.
Besides the injury bug, there was nothing to complain about when Hampton was on the field. Once he returned for the second half of Northwestern’s season, he played the part he was supposed to: he contributed to a Northwestern secondary that was much improved come Big Ten play.
While Hampton only played seven games this year, he provided glimpses of a number one corner. Though he was not usually matched against a team’s number one wide receiver (this was Mitchell’s job), he was able to lock down some players and cancel them out of the game.
The best example of this is the Ohio State game in Evanston, where the senior was one of the main reasons C.J. Stroud was not able to find success through the air. For the majority of the game, Hampton was matched up against Emeka Egbuka, who is one of the top receivers in the conference, and only held him to six yards on two receptions. Yes, the weather was poor in Evanston, but Hampton helped contribute to Egbuka’s, and Stroud’s, worst game of the season.
This shows what Hampton can bring to another team. He has the physical traits (5-foot-11 with length unlike other corners) to contribute anywhere and his stats at Northwestern shows he can be a number two corner anywhere else, or even a number one. This is what he brings to another team, and at his best, can cancel out anyone on the opposing offense.
The obvious con from this season is the injury the senior suffered in Ireland against Nebraska. Hampton was forced to sit out five games after this when he was supposed to be a major contributor to the defense, and this stings not only for the corner, but the defense as a whole.
Another con that Hampton had this season was a low number of pass breakups. This is a shaky one, as it can mean many things: maybe Hampton was not thrown at as much, maybe he was torched by some wide receivers, it can mean anything. For the senior, it was a mix this year. The aforementioned Egbuka game is an example where Hampton was not thrown at much, but in games such as against Iowa, a low-scoring Hawkeye offense had its best game of the year as the Northwestern defense could not solve anything thrown at them.
In 2021, Hampton tied the Big Ten lead in pass breakups with 13, so this was definitely a step back for him.
Furthermore, Hampton did not express the big play skills this year like he did last year. Not only did he not have many pass breakups, he did not have a chance at interceptions or other big plays. He only had one fumble recovery to go along with 21 tackles, and while some of this has to be because of injury, it is worth noting.
In his four years in Evanston, Hampton showed the potential to be one of the best corners not only in the conference, but the country. While this season was not the one he had hoped for, it shows what he can be for other teams.
Wherever he is next year, ‘Cats fans will be rooting for him. He will be tasked with covering productive receivers like he always was for Northwestern, and if all goes right, he can thrive.